These offshore companies can cross borders, invest and transfer cash between each other, and after creating a frustrating enough web of transfers and exchanges, as many of them as vague and anonymous as possible mid-transit, they can invest in money-making ventures. Over time, they build small empires in their target destinations, which for Russians are often Switzerland and the UK, particularly London. But that’s fairly basic. The real pros are a lot sneakier than that, using charitable organizations and nonprofits as their identity shields.
The story came to a partial resolution last month, when the Hungarian government announced that it had acquired seven of the 14 pieces from the heirs of Peter Wilson for €15m (£12.4m). As for the Northampton part of the cache, its fate remains mysterious: Lord Northampton divorced his fifth wife in 2012 with a secret settlement said to be worth £17m: it is not known if she received part of the hoard in the deal.
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.
Over the years Bouvier has shifted his core business from art transportation to building and operating vast, secretive high-tech fortresses used for storing not just artworks but cars, wine, coins, and furniture. Such repositories, known as free ports, have existed for centuries, but until quite recently their primary purpose was to hold raw materials in transit—a shipment of soybeans, say. They were found primarily in transit zones, such as airports and canals, and they usually enjoyed one of the benefits of existence at the jurisdictional margins: tax and duty freedom.
Francis Morland was one of Britain’s most talented young artists, a contemporary of David Hockney and Peter Blake and a leading member of the 1960s “New Generation” movement. At the same time he lived an even more remarkable secret life as the biggest drug trafficker in the UK. He stuffed his abstract sculptures full of Lebanese cannabis to ship to the lucrative American market, moved yachtloads of Moroccan hashish to Europe, and years before Howard Marks, became the country’s first recognised drug baron.
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To be greeted by a Russian-speaking security team at La Belle Epoque, Rybolovlev's Monaco residence (reportedly the most expensive apartment in the world, worth $323 million), is not a surprise, then. The three-story penthouse also happens to be the scene of Monaco's most infamous murder, that of the Lebanese-Brazilian banker Edmond Safra, who was killed in a botched arson attempt by one of his caretakers in 1999. British developers Nick and Christian Candy subsequently renovated the manse to resemble a modern Versailles. My heels click-clack on the marble floors as a pleasant but pale aide-de-camp ushers me into the living room, where Rybolovlev's young lawyer, Tetiana Bersheda, tall and thin, with diamonds around her neck and wrist, soon comes to fetch me.
But while Simpson saw disturbing patterns, he was unable to nail anything down, because he couldn’t get the relevant records from banks and other financial institutions. Schiff posed an interesting question: Simpson didn’t have subpoena power, but the committee did. Who should it subpoena if it wanted to learn more? Simpson laid out a roadmap for Schiff:
Tetiana Bersheda warned me that I would find Tania Rappo "captivating." After I meet her in her lawyer's office, atop a creaking staircase in a building near the Fairmont Monte Carlo, and later at dinner, accompanied by her husband and her lawyer, at an outdoor French restaurant, I cannot deny it. Dressed casually in a black halter top, jeans, and heels—as well as big pearl earrings—Rappo looks far younger than her years. One of the first things she tells me—then repeats again and again—is that she and Bersheda never got along. Bersheda was always kept away from the art collection, and one senses how much the rivalry between these two women plays a role in the case.
The looting and illicit export of art treasures is not a new problem. It’s happened whenever there have been armed conflicts during which victorious troops plundered churches, temples and other buildings. Germany carried out massive looting in World War II. By the start of the 21st Century the trade in illicit antiquities had become so huge it was worth billions of dollars each year and was the biggest international crime outside drug and arms trafficking according to The New York Times. When a piece is stolen, the consequence for scholars is tragic, because essential information about the piece – where it was found, what else was with it – is lost forever.
The wealthy figured this out in a big way back in the 1980s, giving rise to ‘art stars’ valued in the millions. And with the increasing popularity and geographical scope of biennials and art fairs in the 1990s, rich people all over the world now have access to seas of multi-million dollar investments that can be rolled up and stored just about anywhere.
At the restaurant Rappo, who speaks eloquent English as well as French, Russian, and her native Bulgarian, chain-smokes throughout the evening, and although she orders champagne, she scarcely touches it, preferring to talk, talk, and talk. Both her husband, a handsome, quiet man, and her lawyer, "Maître Michel," occasionally interrupt, telling her, "Tania, no, don't say that," but clearly Rappo is not a woman who is told what to do.
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.
There is no comparable entity in the art market. But were the same type of program instituted in the art market, it would only require that the auction house, dealer or lawyer know the beneficial owner and be able to reveal that information to federal authorities. It would not require the other side of the transaction to learn the seller (or buyer’s) identity.
At our meeting at La Belle Epoque I put it to him: Had he been conned or was he negligent? The answer, he explained, went back to the early 1990s, before he and his family fled Russia. After the fall of communism, Rybolovlev, who originally trained as a cardiologist, switched to finance and became one of the first securities traders in Russia. One of his first moves as a financier was to take a majority stake in Uralkali, the former Soviet fertilizer monopoly, which subsequently increased its productivity five-fold. Boris Yeltsin was president. The economy of Russia was melting down. The rule of law had all but disappeared, and Uralkali's success made Rybolovlev a target. To protect himself from ambushes he sent a fleet of identical cars with identical license plates registered in his name into Moscow; he also moved Ekaterina and his wife Elena to Geneva.
He told Swiss publication Le Temps that Rybolovlev owes his company “tens of millions of euros,” while claiming that the oligarch set him up after failing to cough up the cash for Rothko’s No. 6 – Violet, Green, and Red. “[Rybolovlev] couldn’t pay the balance of the last painting he bought from my company, the most beautiful Rothko in the world.” Invited by the buyer to chat, Bouvier “fell into an ambush” as he was detained and handcuffed by eight police officers.