In art fraud trial, Sotheby’s is pressured to admit role in sale to Russian oligarch

In art fraud trial, Sotheby's is pressured to admit role in sale to Russian oligarch

The painting Sotheby’s was trying to sell was a recently discovered work by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the world’s greatest artists. It was known as “Salvator Mundi” and was a depiction of Jesus Christ.

But it had a code name: Jack.

Sotheby’s expert Samuel Valette testified in a Manhattan court on Wednesday about how one day in March 2013 he took the painting crosstown in an SUV from the auction house’s headquarters on York Avenue to a prime apartment overlooking Central Park.

This was one of several trips he made to display the painting to a potential buyer, the valet said. As always, he was accompanied by security guards and the painting, already valued at millions of dollars, was in a protective crate.

The apartment was owned by Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian oligarch who sued Sotheby’s, accusing the auction house of aiding a Swiss dealer whom he says sold several outstanding works of art. He was cheated in the sale of his works.

The valet said that when he visited 15 Central Park West he did not know whose apartment it was. Inside the house, he said, were two men: the Swiss dealer, Yves Bouvier, a frequent client who had arranged the viewing, and Rybolovlev, whom he had met earlier.

But Rybolovlev’s lawyer, Daniel J. During Kornstein’s interrogation the valet insisted that he did not know who owned the apartment.

“Are you saying, Mister Valet, that you arranged for this very expensive painting to be taken to an apartment, and you didn’t know whose apartment it was?” Kornstein asked.

“I didn’t know whose apartment it was, that’s right,” the valet said, adding that the insurers only cared about knowing the address and that Sotheby’s would exist.

“At the time, I think, Mr. Bouvier told me it was a big apartment building on Central Park West,” he said.

The valet’s mindset – what he knew or didn’t know in his dealings with Bouvier – is at the center of Rybolovlev’s case against the auction house, which has been the subject of a federal court trial now in its second week in Manhattan. Valette was the Sotheby’s executive who worked with Bouvier on the sale of the da Vinci and three other works that are the focus of the case.

In each instance, Bouvier purchased the works through Sotheby’s and then sold them to Rybolovlev at large markups. Rybolovlev says that Bouvier defrauded him by pretending to act as his art advisor in the transaction, even pretending to negotiate with a third party, when in fact he was the one selling the works. Was the owner. He has argued that the valet understood what was happening and helped him.

Sotheby’s has denied this. Bouvier, who is not a defendant in the case, has denied any wrongdoing and said it was always clear he was acting as an independent dealer.

After seeing Central Park West, which Rybolovlev says was installed to give him the opportunity to examine the work, Bouvier purchased the da Vinci for $83 million, only to sell it to Rybolovlev a day later for $127.5 million. Sold in.

Sotheby’s officials have argued that they had no knowledge of any fraud, if it ever occurred, and have argued at trial that if anyone had been convicted of buying art at an overpriced price, he would have Rybolovlev himself was responsible for not defending himself against Bouvier’s actions.

But for Rybolovlev, the valet is at the center of the argument that Sotheby’s was part of a deliberate scheme to defraud him of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although Rybolovlev has accused Bouvier in court papers of fraud in the purchase of 38 works, only 12 works were purchased by Bouvier in private sales held by Sotheby’s, and only four are the focus of the lawsuit.

Bouvier has fought Rybolovlev’s allegations in legal disputes in Europe and Asia, which ended after the parties reached a confidential settlement in Geneva late last year.

Rybolovlev’s lawyers have argued that Sotheby’s, which earned a $3 million commission on the sale of the da Vinci to Bouvier, was guided in its actions by its interest in pleasing a man who had become an important client.

In questioning Valet on Wednesday, Kornstein asked a series of questions about Valet’s input on the transaction between Bouvier and Rybolovlev. For example, he asked why Valet had forged Sotheby’s documents that Bouvier would eventually send to Rybolovlev to persuade him to buy the art; Why the valet made up the appraisal, which Rybolovlev has argued hid the markup from him; And why Valet had left Bouvier’s name out of the history of the transaction.

The valet replied that he knew that Bouvier had resold art and that at some point he had learned that Rybolovlev was one of Bouvier’s clients. But he said he never knew what work Bouvier was selling to Rybolovlev and that everything he did was within the accepted practices and etiquette adopted by experts selling a work to a buyer.

As far as he was concerned, he said, “Mr. Bouvier was the buyer.

During testimony earlier Tuesday, Valette told the court he did not know Bouvier was handing over the artifacts to Rybolovlev.

“I understand he was trying to sell them,” Valette said of Bouvier. “I didn’t understand that he was buying them on someone’s behalf.”

During Valette’s testimony on Wednesday, he was asked about the insurance appraisal that Sotheby’s provided for the da Vinci in 2015, when Bouvier began to suspect that he had made large markups on works he purchased through Bouvier. Had paid.

In the document, which was sent to Rybolovlev, the painting’s insurance valuation was raised despite the initial objections of a Sotheby’s associate, according to court papers, and the attached cover letter was changed to remove reference to an earlier acquisition of the artwork by Bouvier. Was edited. ,

Rybolovlev has argued that those changes were intended to help Bouvier conceal his alleged plan.

Valette acknowledged that he had made the changes at Bouvier’s request. But he said these were changes Sotheby’s would make for any high-end client and that ultimately he only went with a valuation that was approved by Sotheby’s other experts.

“I didn’t think about it, to be honest,” Valet said. “He asked for these two small changes.”

He was also asked why he had revised the estimated price upward in the case of the Modigliani statue that Rybolovlev had purchased from Bouvier. Originally, he told Bouvier in a 2012 email that the artwork was worth at least 70 million to 90 million euros or perhaps even more, only to revise that estimate in less than 12 hours to €80 million. €100 million. Bouvier forwarded the high projection to Rybolovlev’s colleague. Valette said the adjustment was made because Bouvier wanted it to be more distinctive.

“He wanted me to make my views clear,” he said.

Colin Moynihan Contributed to the reporting.

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