The Russian billionaire/art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev has lost his legal battle with Sotheby’s. A jury in the US sided with the auction house in a lawsuit over claims that the businessman was overcharged while assembling a trove of works that included the overrestored Leonardo de Vinci, “Salvator Mundi”, sold to the Saudi Crown Prince, for $450m in 2017.
In a closely watched trial, a New York federal jury swiftly reached a verdict in Dmitry Rybolovlev’s case against Sotheby’s. The fertilizer magnate accused the auction house of complicity in a scheme a Swiss art dealer orchestrated, alleging that Sotheby’s facilitated exorbitant artwork markups, resulting in losses exceeding $160 million. During his testimony earlier this month, Rybolovlev expressed emotional distress, lamenting financial setbacks and a breach of trust.
Sotheby’s vehemently denied any wrongdoing, maintaining its innocence and adherence to legal and industry standards. Following the jury’s decision on Tuesday, the auction house portrayed the outcome as a resounding vindication of its unwavering commitment to integrity and professionalism in the art market.
In response, Daniel Kornstein, representing Rybolovlev, cited the challenges inherent in proving a complex case of aiding and abetting fraud, underscoring the significance of secrecy in such legal proceedings.
“This case has underscored the urgent need for transparency reforms within the art market,” declared Rybolovlev’s attorney, emphasising the broader implications beyond the courtroom.
Rybolovlev, 57, invested over $2 billion from 2002 to 2014 to amass a prestigious art collection featuring masterpieces by renowned artists such as Picasso, Rodin, Modigliani, and da Vinci. Trusting Swiss art dealer and duty-free warehouse owner Yves Bouvier. Rybolovlev stated he relied on his expertise in art acquisition. However, Rybolovlev alleged that Bouvier inflated prices and pocketed excessive profits, breaching their professional agreement.
While Bouvier settled with Rybolovlev in December under undisclosed terms, maintaining his innocence, the trial highlighted the contentious transactions involving Sotheby’s. Rybolovlev contended that the auction house either knew or should have known about the fraudulent practices and failed to intervene.”For me, it’s not just about money,” Rybolovlev underscored, stressing the imperative of transparency in the art market and the responsibilities incumbent upon industry leaders.
Sotheby’s attorney, Sara Shudofsky, countered Rybolovlev’s claims, portraying him as seeking retribution from an innocent party for the actions of others. She argued that Rybolovlev failed to exercise due diligence in his dealings with Bouvier, casting doubt on his claims of victimhood.
The trial revolved around four artworks, including da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which Rybolovlev sold at auction in 2017. This trial underscores the stakes and complexities in the high-stakes art world.
In a statement on the Outcome of the Accent Delight International v. Sotheby’s Trial Geneva, Switzerland, 30 January 2024 – The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled against Accent Delight International in its trial against Sotheby’s. On the outcome of the trial, Mr Bouvier said: “The New York court proceedings were a surreal charade in which people argued over an alleged fraud that had never happened.”
The decision marks the latest legal action to be dismissed in relation to this dispute. In December 2023, the Geneva Public Prosecutor’s Office stated that it closed the case after conducting a number of hearings, including with Mr. Rybolovlev and Mr. Valette, “which did not provide any evidence to raise sufficient suspicion” against Mr Bouvier. Under Article 320 of the Swiss Code of Penal Procedure, such a binding order is equivalent to a final verdict of acquittal. David Bitton and Yves Klein, lawyers for Mr Bouvier in Geneva, stated that:“The outcome of these proceedings comes as no surprise. It would have been absurd for the New York court to find the existence of a fraud that no other authority has ever admitted, despite multiple proceedings initiated around the world, notably in Singapore, Hong Kong, Monaco and Geneva. The time has come to turn the page on this case that should have never happened in the first place.