Sotheby’s declined to comment on whether it believed Mr. Bouvier to be the owner. But it says it knew him very well as a customer and that he had represented to them that he had the legal right to sell the property. As to its policy of learning the identity of ultimate owners, Sotheby’s said it takes a risk-based approach — sometimes requiring disclosure depending on the specific facts and circumstances of each situation.
The King free ports, as the Swiss media have dubbed him, Bouvier was embroiled in a similar legal scandal in 2008, when he was connected to a group that tricked an aging collector into selling a piece by Russian-born French artist Chaim Soutine that was then flipped to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. A suite filed by the heirs of Canadian Lorette Jolles Shefner claims she was misled into selling Piece of Beef for $1 million in the Spring of 2004 by two art experts who, a few months later, sold it to the National Gallery for nearly twice the price. Bouvier was "acting in concert [with the experts] to disguise the true ownership" of works of art as part of the fraudulent scheme, court documents revealed.
Price flexibility in the art world is just one of the many advantages for a certain subset of the criminals — money launderers. Other advantages include portability, lack of a paper trail, anonymity, and no regulations. Artwork is lightweight compared to other valuables, like gold and cash. Artwork is bought and sold with minimal paperwork, unlike real estate. Artwork purchases can be anonymous, unlike everything else.
Money obtained illegally—from fraud, embezzlement, bribery, etc.—needs a hiding place. A huge deposit into a bank account, with no clear indication of where that money came from, is a red flag for the IRS. So instead of depositing dirty money, or holding onto it as cash, disreputable people will often turn the money into something else (cars, mansions) or filter it through a business so it comes out the other side looking like the profits of a legitimate enterprise.
Anonymity was certainly a factor in the success of the scam that took down the estimable Knoedler gallery in New York after 165 years in business. Some $80 million was turned over by collectors to purchase unknown, albeit fake, “masterpieces” that were brought to market by a Long Island art dealer and her boyfriend. They said all the work had come from a mystery collector who became known as Mr. X. In fact, they were being created by a forger in his Queens garage.
According to Bersheda, the criminal complaint she filed last year was against Bouvier only. Rybolovlev was already hurt and angry, but the serious pain came, he says, when he heard that investigators had found commissions from Bouvier in Rappo's bank accounts going back to 2004. Rappo knew Rybolovlev to be reserved and wary, he says. He let his guard down around Bouvier because he trusted her. At that point he began to see Rappo, not Bouvier, at the center of the spider's web. Their falling out has led him to ask what he calls "difficult philosophical questions." Had it not been for the dentist's wife he would never have gotten involved with Bouvier.
After that I knew there were a lot of stolen Nok pieces that were going to be exhibited at a gallery in London-all worth around $400,000-sold to some of the wealthiest people in the world. I could've easily made a lot of money for myself by approaching the dealer and saying, "Give me 100 grand to keep my mouth shut about where they came from," and I would've gotten it in a nanosecond. But instead I went to the Nigerian embassy and convinced the ambassador there about these stolen Nok pieces.
Over the last decade, economic forces on a global scale have overrun the art world—visibly to all, in the case of the gargantuan bids casually tossed out at the evening sales, but all but imperceptibly (except to a tiny and in-the-know elite) in other areas—and no one has been more at the center of it, or better epitomized its drive for concealment, than the canny Bouvier. In Switzerland a business owned by Bouvier's family, Natural Le Coultre, is one of the country's oldest transporters of goods, formerly of all kinds but since the 2000s of fine art exclusively. The shift in strategy was not coincidental. As the Economist and others have pointed out, "collectibles [such as art] have outperformed stocks over the past decade," aided in part by the world's string of financial crises. In fact, for some ultra-wealthy individuals art has become the asset of choice, for not only does a Modigliani nude hold or increase its value, it is an easy asset to move or hide.
Contact an art advisor to help you find a buyer for your work or see if an auction house like Sotheby’s or Christie’s wants to auction it for you. If they help you sell your collection, they will make money, so it’s in their best interest not to ask any questions. Make an appointment with an auction house to appraise the pieces in your collection. You’ll sign a contract that says you are allowing the auctioneers to sell your collection on consignment, which means if it sells you get paid, and if it doesn’t you get the art returned to you. It will also tell you what sort of fees you will be charged - like insurance, shipping, and the auction house’s cut. You’ll ship the work to the auction house, wait for your collection to be sold, and make it rain.
Rybolovlev, meanwhile, was only getting richer. In 2007 Uralkali floated on the London Stock Exchange and became the most successful Russian IPO ever. Less than a year later the Putin regime—which is notoriously antagonistic toward Russian oligarchs living abroad, particularly ones whose fortunes derive from buying post-Soviet assets on the cheap—summoned him to a meeting in Moscow,
The potential role of high-end art and antiquities in money laundering schemes has attracted increasing attention over the last several years, particularly as the prices for such objects steadily rise and a tightening global enforcement and regulatory net has rendered other possible avenues for money laundering increasingly less attractive. The effort to subject U.S. dealers in art and antiquities to Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) obligations recently has gained new life. As we blogged, the House Financial Services Committee just released three proposed bills to codify many of the reform ideas that have been swirling around the Bank Secretary Act (“BSA”) and AML and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) laws. One of the bills — entitled as the “To make reforms to the Federal Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering laws, and for other purposes” — catalogues various detailed provisions seeking to reform the BSA and AML laws. Nestled admist all of the other, generally higher-profile proposals (such as the creation of a BSA whistleblower program), one short section of this bill simply expands the list of defined “financial institutions” covered by the BSA to include “dealers in art or antiquities,” and then states that the Secretary of the Treasury shall issue implementing regulations within 180 days of the bill’s enactment.
Rybolovlev now says he didn't want his marriage to end—nor, he felt, did Elena. He believes it could have been saved, but Rappo, whom Elena was close to, "pushed her"—his words—not to reconcile, because, he says, Rappo (and Bouvier, with whom he believes Rappo had formed a secret partnership) wanted "the story of my divorce" to cover what he calls Rappo and Bouvier's unfolding scheme. That alleged plot, which Rappo and Bouvier deny, involved defrauding Rybolovlev—hiding from him the enormous markups on the masterpieces he was acquiring through them—in order to finance an ambitious expansion of Bouvier's free port empire. And Rybolovlev, even if he found out, would have no choice but to go along.
Though there are no hard statistics on the amount of laundered money invested in art, law enforcements officials and scholars agree they are seeing more of it. The Basel Institute on Governance, a nonprofit research organization in Switzerland — the site of the world’s premier contemporary and Modern art show — warned last year of the high volume of illegal and suspicious transactions involving art. But regulation has been scattershot and difficult to coordinate internationally.
Still swirling around the market are persistent rumours that there is even more to the treasure than the known 14 pieces. Archaeologists claim that such finds always include spoons and coins, which were missing when the pieces started coming onto the market. Many believe they are still languishing in Swiss bank vaults, with the owner(s) waiting for the provenance issues to be cleared up entirely. It is to be ardently hoped that one day the whole hoard, in all its magnificence, will be returned to Hungary to be displayed together once again.
This painting, known as “Hannibal” after a word scribbled on its surface, was brought into the United States in 2007 as part of a Brazilian embezzler’s elaborate effort to launder money, the authorities say. It was later seized at a Manhattan warehouse by federal investigators who are now preparing to return it to Brazil at the behest of law enforcement officials there.
Bonhams and Christie’s were also forced to pull smaller objects from their March sales this year, after they were alleged to have passed through the hands of two notorious antiquities smugglers, Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina. Both had been convicted of trafficking in looted objects, for which Medici was sentenced to 10 years in prison and paid a 10m euro fine – the largest ever imposed for such a crime by Italian prosecutors. Polaroid photos of an immense cache of objects in his Swiss warehouse apparently identified a second or first century BC jug offered for £4,000-£6,000 ($6,700-$10,000) at Christie’s, and a third century pottery pyxis (cosmetic pot) offered for £3,000-£5,000 ($5,000-$8,400) at Bonhams. Earlier this year, the US government seized a $4m (£2.4m) ancient Roman statue in a New York warehouse – it too had passed through Becchina’s hands.
In the tight-knit world of art dealers and mega-buyers, where insider information is the name of the game, Bouvier's case could be prove to be a game changer, as it potentially pits collectors against brokers, putting inherent conflicts of interest in the spotlight. At the same time, Rybolovlev is playing a high-stakes game, as a sophisticated collector and global businessman of his stature is not one who doesn't understand the risks he's taking. His lawyer claims other "victims" of Mr. Bouvier have already approached them, while the embattled King of the free ports believes he will clear his name in a Monaco court. Whatever happens the impact could be permanent.
When addressing the efforts to establish an artwork’s provenance history and authenticity under Guideline 4, the AML Guidelines provide that “[i]t is important to obtain and publish in any catalogue or sales document as much information as possible about the artwork, including any known provenance,” and to “check major databases of stolen and looted art and obtain any relevant and available legal documents, witness declarations, [and] expert opinions[.]” In addition to a physical examination of the artwork and a technical analysis and dating of the materials used, “[d]ocuments helpful in establishing ownership and provenance include invoices, receipts, dated photographs, insurance records, valuations, official records, exhibition catalogues, invoices for restoration work, diaries, dated newspaper articles, original signed and dated letters.”