“The tax laws in art make it basically legal to not pay taxes on art. If you’re a serious art buyer, you just get a good tax accountant,” former New York-based art consultant Beth Fiore tells Hopes&Fears. “If you show newly purchased works in certain museums then you never have to pay taxes on it.” Edward Winkleman of Winkleman Gallery maintains that his gallery keeps fastidious records of all transactions and pays taxes even on cash sales. But he admits that, “the state generally wouldn't question what is reported.” He also tells us that individual sales don’t need to be reported, only the totals for each quarter. Hypothetically, someone could buy millions of dollars worth of art without the IRS knowing, and then later sell those works for a “legitimate” profit that looks clean on taxes.
Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev had decided to send off a tough 2014 in New York City. The Monaco-based billionaire had been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons after a Swiss judge awarded his ex-wife Elena $4.5 billion in their seven-year divorce battle. An avid art collector, Rybolovlev decided to spend New Year’s Eve with Sandy Heller, Steve Cohen’s well-known art adviser. As they exchanged war stories, one particular tale made his jaw drop: it was about a beautiful Nude by Italian artist Amadeo Modigliani that Cohen sold for a juicy $93.5 million to a mystery buyer. What Heller didn’t know was that behind the veil of anonymity stood Rybolovlev, fuming internally on that December 31. Rybolovlev had paid his trusted friend and art broker Yves Bouvier $118 million for the piece, more than $22 million above what he just found out the market value should've been, including the fee. Not one to sit around, the oligarch went for the jugular, filing a criminal complaint in the Principality of Monaco for fraud and money laundering only nine days later. In what promises to be the biggest art scandal of 2015, Bouvier was ambushed by eight police officers who took him into custody this February, tricked by Rybolovlev himself as they were set to discuss payment terms for a masterpiece by Mark Rothko. He’s currently out on bail.
The AML Standards for Art Market Operators (“AML Standards”) are set forth by the Basel Institute on Governance, an independent not-for-profit organization. Not surprisingly, the AML Standards adopt a “risk based” approach to establishing measures to mitigate money laundering risks, and further note that “[s]mall businesses may not have the resources to address money-laundering risks in the same way that large auction houses or major dealers and galleries will have, and may have a different risk exposure.” The AML Standards are intended to apply to everone trading in art objects, and intermediaries between buyers and sellers. They also suggest that service industries supprting the trade in art objects that are already subject to AML laws, like financial institutions, should identify their clients and customers in the art trade “as higher risk as long as there are no internationally applicable standards.”
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.”
While the US art market remains relatively unregulated, organizations across the globe are taking steps to hold dealers accountable for reporting illegal activity. In February of 2013, the European Commission passed ordinances that require European galleries to report sales above 7,500 euros paid in cash, as well as file suspicious-transaction reports. And in the beginning of this year, a forum was held at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in which economist Nouriel Roubini, among others, spoke on the art market’s susceptibility to laundering and other economic crimes like tax avoidance and evasion. “Anybody can walk into a gallery and spend half a million dollars and nobody is going to ask any questions," said Roubini according to Swiss Info.
There are no accepted estimates on the amounts of money laundered through the art market, although the general belief is that it is enormous and expanding as regulations on other asset classes, from real estate to foreign exchange, tighten up everywhere. The International Monetary Fund estimated that "the amount available for laundering through the financial system" was worth 2.7 per cent of global gross domestic product in 2009 or $1.6-trillion (U.S.).
"I think I can be useful," Rappo says Bouvier told her. Rybolovlev "jumped," she says. "He was really very happy." According to her, the oligarch recognized that Bouvier had some of the best art in the world sitting in his Geneva warehouse. Rybolovlev, for his part, says he scarcely remembers his first meeting with Bouvier, and he took the meeting only because Rappo encouraged him to. He found Bouvier "a regular, likable man," different from the stereotypical smooth-talking art dealer. And because Rappo, whom he trusted "totally," had brought them together, Rybolovlev agreed to work with him for, the oligarch claims, a fee of 2 percent—which Bouvier denies, saying that amount was merely for transport and administrative costs.
Other valuable customers for the auction houses and dealers were Malaysian businessmen who, beginning in 2013, bought more than $200 million in art, usually operating as the Tanore Finance Corporation, including eight works at Christie’s. The United States government contends in a civil complaint that the art was purchased with money that had been embezzled from Malaysian government accounts and that the ultimate beneficiary was Jho Low, one of the businessmen. Mr. Low, who has denied any wrongdoing, has not been criminally charged.
So far, the release of transcripts of Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson’s interviews with the House Intelligence and Senate Judiciary committees have provided rich detail to obsessives but few major headlines for the average reader. The interviews give some more clarity on how Fusion came to investigate Donald Trump; who was paying the company; and how it gathered information, but they offer much help in assessing the Trump dossier.
The room is oval and intimate. He sits in an armchair, back to flung-open French doors, the yacht-filled harbor of La Condamine beyond. Curiously, since Rybolovlev is the owner of one of the world's most valuable art collections, not a single work of art is on view. However, books, mainly on business and soccer, line the shelves. When I point out one by Donald Trump, he laughs. "I've never read it," he says. "It was put there by the Candy brothers." I sit on the sofa close to Bersheda, who is going to translate. Rybolovlev's trust in the glamorous, brainy 31-year-old lawyer is obvious. They met six years ago in Geneva, where she worked for a law firm that he had retained. He asked her to work for him and she refused, but subsequently she set up her own firm, of which he is now a major client. She and I met last summer at Art Basel, where she gauged whether he should talk to me.
Most of these industries have checks. Real estate titles and deeds at least require a name. Mortgage brokers, stockbrokers, casinos, banks and Western Union must report suspicious financial activity to the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Banks must report all transactions of $10,000 or more. Altogether, the network logs more than 15 million currency transactions each year that can be used to track dirty money, said Steve Hudak, a spokesman for the agency. The art market lacks these safeguards. Roll up a canvas and it is easy to stash or move between countries; prices can be raised or lowered by millions of dollars in a heartbeat; and the names of buyers and sellers tend to be guarded zealously, leaving law enforcement to guess who was involved, where the money came from and whether the price was suspicious.
But given his recent history of making splashy but unsupported claims, it’s difficult to grant Nunes the benefit of the doubt. In the spring, he made a series of extremely serious allegations against the Obama administration, including improper surveillance of Trump aides. No proof of those allegations emerged, and the Justice Department has since said there was no surveillance. It soon became clear that Nunes was receiving information from White House staffers (who have since been pushed out of the White House), even as he was overseeing an ostensibly independent investigation into the president.
Once purchased, the art can disappear from view for years, even decades. A lot of the art bought at auctions goes to freeports – ultra-secure warehouses for the collections of millionaires and billionaires, ranging from Picassos and gold to vintage Ferraris and fine wine. The freeports, which exist in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Singapore, offer a variety of tax advantages because the goods stored in them are technically in transit. The Economist magazine reported that the freeport near the Geneva airport alone is thought to hold $100 billion (U.S.) of art.