He needed to be bailed out by his father in the 1970s, and then again in the 1980s to stave off bankruptcy. He ended up bankrupting multiple companies anyway and trying to hold banks hostage to forgive many of his debts after the Taj Mahal and Plaza Hotel were in dire straits. In 1995, his one year losses exceeded $916 million. Many of his businesses crashed and burned, and according to his ghost writer for The Art of the Deal, much of his business savvy was little more than bluster.
“Russia had no institutional instruments for regulating this new commercial environment. The courts didn’t function. They didn’t know what dispute resolution in business actually was. And so everyone engaging in the new commerce had to employ their own security force in order to ensure the integrity of their business contracts. These guys were called privatised law enforcement agencies by sociologists but they are quite simply the Mafia,” he says.
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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.
"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.
But to dealers and their clients, secrecy is a crucial element of the art market’s mystique and practice. The Art Dealers Association of America dismissed the idea that using art to launder money was even a problem. “The issue is not an industrywide problem and really does not pertain to us,” said Lily Mitchem Pearsall, the association’s spokeswoman.
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In the end, maybe this guide was never intended for amoral businessmen in the first place (unless we’ve sorely misjudged our readership!) Maybe this it's more useful to the emerging artists who look for validation (read: dollar signs) in a competitive market. Maybe the artist’s secret to success is appealing to the corrupt and becoming an accomplice to white collar crime (but hopefully not). Are economic criminals the driving force of the art economy? Probably not, but what we do know for certain is that art isn’t only valuable as the evidence of creative genius. It is, to many, a vault.
— The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the amount of illicit money that is laundered each year to be between “2 - 5% of global GDP, or $800 billion - $2 trillion in current US dollars.” The difficulty of knowing exact figures accounts for the huge margin within estimates. The UN’s estimates specifically cite “Mega-Byte” as an issue, defining the term as “money in the form of symbols on computer screens the can move anywhere in the world with speed and ease.”
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?
He hasn't given many interviews over the past six years, but I managed to track him down for a chat. After learning I did a bit of unlicensed boxing before becoming a journalist, Michel took a liking to me, as he is a fighter himself. He once had so many contracts on his head that Scotland Yard detectives allegedly placed bets on how long he had left to live before he was murdered by a hitman.
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.
The Art Business should examine the client’s background and purpose behind the contemplated transaction. For example, are the artworks being sold by the client consistent with what is known about the client’s collection? Is the level at which the client is selling or buying consistent with their past transactions and what is known about their professional activities and personal wealth? If not, the Art Business may want to ask the client for further information.