Pieces started filtering onto the London art market in the 1980s and a British aristocrat, the Marquess of Northampton, formed a consortium to buy 14 of them, along with the late Peter Wilson, at the time chairman of Sotheby’s. Forged documents from Lebanon were produced to give a provenance to the treasure, and it was put up for sale in New York in 1990 at a price of $50m. However immediately three countries – Hungary, Croatia and Lebanon – claimed the cache as being from their territories. The works were hurriedly withdrawn from sale.
So, with the help of a girlfriend who speaks better English, the potentate asked Heller, "What price did you sell it for?" The answer: $93 million, $25 million less than Rybolovlev's trusts had paid for it. Chuckling, Rybolovlev tells me his fellow diners at the Eden Rock "thought I was having a stroke." Less cheerfully he says it was the worst New Year's Eve of his life. Within minutes he was on the phone to Bersheda. For years, according to Rybolovlev, he believed he had been paying the middleman who had sold him the Modigliani (above)—as well as 37 other museum-worthy paintings—a commission of 2 percent (in other words, about $2 million for the Modigliani, not $25 million). He was now realizing every collector's worst fear: He had been fleeced, and the question was, for how long and how much?
Well, they are. In 2014, Texas business man Phillip Rivkin was charged with 68 counts of fraud after using millions of dollars worth of photographs to launder money. He had made over $78 million through fraudulent schemes involving his biodiesel production companies—which didn’t actually produce any biodiesel. Rivkin spent roughly $16 million dollars on 2,200 fine art photographs by artists like Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston. Works included Edward Weston’s Dunes, Oceano, a gelatin silver print that Rivkin purchased from Sotheby’s for $134,500 and another vintage gelatin silver contact print by Alfred Stieglitz, From the Shelton, West. Rivkin wired Camera Lucida, the seller of the photograph, $150,000 to purchase it.
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When addressing the KYC procedures under Guideline 3, the AML Guidelines explain that establishing a client’s risk profile will require an art business to obtain information on the client; understand the purpose and intended nature of the transaction; and understand the client’s source of wealth and how they acquired their art collection. The AML Guidelines also stress the need to identify beneficial ownership, “even if the contracting client raises confidentiality concerns,” and note that the art business “may also choose to include appropriate warranties and representations in their agreements with their clients to emphasise the importance of this point.” Further, art businesses should peform due diligence on intermediaries, such as art advisors or brokers, acting for one of the parties to a transaction.
Rybolovlev ultimately invited me to La Belle Epoque because he has a story to tell, or rather explain. For the last year he has been at the center of the most astonishing scandal in the art world in years, an alleged billion-dollar fraud that has dealers, artists, and collectors sweating. At stake may be not just the money of an angry and very powerful man intent on recouping his losses but the thing the art world values more than anything: the freedom to operate in darkness.
Though relations between the Republican and Democratic members of the intelligence committee remain contentious, they seem to have improved since Chairman Devin Nunes stepped aside from the investigation amidst a bizarre escapade, in which the White House appeared to be feeding Nunes claims of ethical lapses by the Obama administration in handling intelligence information.
And in response to Beijing’s strict capital controls which make it illegal for an individual move more than $50,000 out of China per year, wealthy folks from China are turning increasingly to smuggling art out of the country instead. "Items can be bought and sold relatively anonymously, and even when a transaction occurs, complex ownership schemes -- many with a degree of secrecy attached -- are widespread," Paul Tehan of TrackArt, a Hong Kong-based art risk consultancy, told CNN. According to Tehan, senior managers of an art shipping company based in China were arrested for allegedly forging the value of imported art in order to help buyers avoid paying millions in duties.
Chagall's Le Grand Cirque was stored in the Geneva free port, and Rybolovlev took Rappo with him to view it. Rappo has since said that she remembers that Bouvier appeared in person to greet them and was attentive. Rybolovlev claims to barely recall this. "If he had approached me, I would not have wanted to know him," he says, citing his habit of shying away from anyone trying to solicit his business.
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.
Most of the billions vanished into a twilight world of offshore companies. The scheme cleverly mingled fake transactions with real ones. Some of it was spent on luxury items: furs, diamonds, Swiss watches, German industrial equipment, fashionable children’s clothes, plus hotel suites in Alpine ski resorts used by Russian oligarchs. It also went to a pro-Kremlin thinktank in Poland.
Of course, certain countries already impose AML regulations on the art world. The European Union Commission issued its 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive in June 2018, which must be implemented by Member States by January 2020, and which in part expands its coverage of “obliged entities” to persons trading in art, acting as intermediaries in the trade of art, or storing art in freeports, if the value of the transaction or a group of linked transactions equals €10,000 or more. In the United States, although the BSA already applies to dealers in precious metals, stones and jewels, and thereby requires them to file Suspicious Activity Reports and comply with other AML obligations, no such rules currently apply to U.S. dealers in art.