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.
I always faced my problems. You have to show some balls. Funnily enough, a lot of these hitmen, if they are cut from the right cloth, will come to you with a certain respect if you don't hide. When the Yugoslavian mafia were going to kidnap my father and brother for trying to set a sting operation against them, I had to come back to Amsterdam to face it. I said, "OK, come along. If you're going to kill me, kill me. If you want my money, go fuck yourself." That's the language they speak. I was standing with my bodyguards on the terrace in Amsterdam and this car flew past and they started shooting at me. A bullet went straight through my leg.
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Finally, he also failed to vet his partner in Trump Scion hotel opening soon in Dallas, who has deep ties in money laundering from Kazakhstan and Russia, and opened two offshores in Cyprus in 2008, which, again, is the favorite destination for Russian oligarchs’ exported cash. (The Scion deal ultimately fell apart due to public opposition to the project.)
For the collector who sees his 1961 Petrus not as something to drink but as an asset to hoard and potentially sell, Bouvier offered an invaluable service. Items could not only be stored behind the free port's seven-ton doors, surrounded by laser trip wires and vibration detectors, they could be shown to other collectors there and traded or sold without moving an inch—and taxed only if they left the free port. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of all is that such transactions could take place beyond the prying eyes of a district attorney or a private investigator tracking down assets in a divorce battle. (As a result, many in the art world worry about a tendency for free ports to become "art cemeteries." The world's largest free port, at Geneva Airport, is said to hold as much art as the Louvre.)
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.
But Scotland Yard were onto him, and he was arrested while awaiting delivery of large importation. He skipped bail and fled abroad, fitted out a wooden ketch, loaded it with a ton-and-a-half of cannabis resin and crossed the Atlantic, using a sextant and dead reckoning. He eventually sailed up the Hudson and unloaded to a New York distributor, only to be caught in chase through the streets of Manhattan and sentenced to six years in a penitentiary.
In this light Trump’s sprawling empire with deep ties to corrupt Russians looks less like a thriving real estate business, but something a bit more nefarious. Deniability was so built into the way he operated that his lawyers didn’t want him signing his own financial disclosures. The Donald’s Sergeant Schultz cavalier approach to business and political conflicts of interest mirror Russian oligarchs. In 2015, as Trump began to eat up air time on American political talk shows in the same way that a starving man eats his first meal in days, Putin may have sensed an opportunity…
Bonhams and Christie’s say that they had done research on their pieces, but were hampered by Italian authorities’ refusal to make the photographic database available to auction houses: “While we have a careful due diligence process in all other respects we have no way, without the co-operation of the Carabinieri, of checking this particular database. This case illustrates why that co-operation would be helpful,” said a spokesperson for Christie’s. As for the Roman statue, it was put on display in a New York art fair last year – but failed to sell. The US authorities are hoping to return it to Italy.
Two of the transactions specifically singled out in the complaint are the Modigliani and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi painted around 1500. While Bouvier is accused of illegally pocketing nearly $25 million on Steve Cohen’s Modigliani, with the Da Vinci—which he’s accused of buying for $75 to $80 million before flipping it to Rybolovlev for $127.5 million including fees—he’s said to have personally received as much as $52.5 million. “I’ve never been a broker,” Bouvier defended himself, “my company was the seller […] and the alleged commissions are not commissions but administrative costs,” he says, adding that in ten years, he’d only spoken to Rybolovlev “five times directly […] he was never a friend.”
Bouvier, of course, denies all accusations, claiming to have found out about the complaint as he was arrested. An art market insider explained to Forbes that it’s common for intermediaries to take their cut directly from the selling price, which in most cases isn’t illegal, unless certain conditions are violated. Forbes reached out to three different lawyers connected with Bouvier (David Bitton, Luc Brossollet, and Charles Lecuyer) but wasn’t able to get a response.
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.
The theory is that both sides would have something to gain. For Russian oligarchs and mobsters, there’s a need to launder money. “Generally speaking, the patterns of activity that we thought might be suggestive of money laundering were, you know, fast turnover deals and deals where there seemed to have been efforts to disguise the identity of the buyer,” Simpson told the committee in November. Trump, meanwhile, was in need of liquidity, because many banks were unwilling to do business with him after a corporate bankruptcy, and Russian buyers could provide quick infusions of cash. In other cases, the Trump Organization has appeared to have gone out of its way to avoid doing due diligence on business partners.
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.
"There is a saying in French: When you want to get rid of your dog, say it has rabies," Rappo says. "He wanted to discredit Bouvier." And as for his putative vendetta against Rappo? She alleges that Rybolovlev and his lawyers have gone after her and not just Bouvier because they "must find a way to link the case to Monaco. The paintings were not sold here."
The data also shows payments to talent agencies, in London and California. The Laundromat was used to book artists on tours of Russia. They include the Florida rock band the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus and Israeli singer-songwriter Yoav. Both played in Moscow and St Petersburg in the autumn of 2013. There is no suggestion the artists were aware of the scheme.
He soon joined Ekaterina and Elena in Geneva. However, in their new home, despite their vast wealth, the Rybolovlevs were isolated. Although Elena eventually learned to speak fluent French, her husband "was always distracted by business. I couldn't clear my mind," he says. One of the first friends they made was Tania Rappo, the wife of their dentist, who happened to mention that his wife spoke Russian. (Rappo comes from Bulgaria, where the language is spoken by about a third of the population.)
While pretty much all art could be scandalized, some are more susceptible to scheming than others. Digital artist Daniel Temkin points out that digital art, which doesn’t need to be shipped or stored because it has no physical manifestation, is particularly ripe for your risky business. To make it easy for you, Temkin has created an "online auction house, offering net art by internationally renowned artists and their impersonators" called NetVVorth. The art experiment/tongue-in-cheek criminal resource hosts a series of counterfeit works created by legitimate net artists. “The collection is offered to expose net art as a viable investment to serious collectors by establishing a shadow market, proving its ability to hide illicit profits and transfer them easily around the globe. All works are supplied with provenance papers. All sales are in Bitcoin. The true counterfeiter is identified only to the owner of the piece.” The collection includes roughly 35 works. Pick your favorite. (And if you hate digital art, like most collectors, you can always hire an art consultant who can help you pick out some “reeeeeal” art.)
“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.