Russian billionaire loses Sotheby’s art fraud lawsuit involving ‘Salvator Mundi’

Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," on display at Christie's auction house in October 2017. The work fetched a record $450.3m at auction in New York in November 2017.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” on display at Christie’s auction house in October 2017. The work fetched a record $450.3m at auction in New York in November 2017. 

A federal jury on Tuesday ruled in favor of Sotheby’s at a trial in which the Russian billionaire oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev accused the auction house of defrauding him out of tens of millions of dollars in art sales.

Rybolovlev accused Sotheby’s of conspiring with Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier to trick him into paying inflated prices for four works including “Salvator Mundi,” a depiction of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that would become the most expensive artwork sold at auction.

Sotheby’s, which is privately held, had long maintained that it had no knowledge that Bouvier might have lied, and that it was not liable for his dealings with Rybolovlev.

Bouvier was not a defendant, and has maintained he did nothing wrong. Rybolovlev, 57, is worth $6.4 billion after building his fortune in potash fertilizer, according to Forbes magazine. He is also majority owner of the AS Monaco soccer team, though has been reported this year to be exploring a sale.

His long-running dispute with Bouvier has been the subject of lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions and centers on the oligarch’s claim that he had been swindled out of $1 billion on 38 artworks sold to him by the Swiss dealer. Among them was the “Salvator Mundi,” which Bouvier bought for $80 million before quickly selling it on to his then-client for $127.5 million.

Although the fertilizer magnate later auctioned off the painting for a record-breaking $450.3 million in 2017, he alleges that Bouvier had defrauded him. Speaking to CNN in 2021, Bouvier maintained that he had acted as a dealer, not an art adviser, and was thus entitled to mark up prices.

Dmitry Rybolovlev arriving at court in New York in January 2024. The Russian billionaire lost his lawsuit against auction house Sotheby's yesterday.

Dmitry Rybolovlev arriving at court in New York in January 2024. The Russian billionaire lost his lawsuit against auction house Sotheby’s yesterday. 

The case has been among the highest-profile art fraud disputes in recent years, offering a view into an often-secretive industry where wealthy buyers sometimes don’t know who they are buying from. The pair reached an out-of-court settlement last year after cases in Switzerland, Singapore, Monaco and Hong Kong were all dismissed or discontinued.

But Rybolovlev continued his legal dispute with Sotheby’s, whom he claimed knew the amount Bouvier had paid for various artworks and had helped inflate his prices. Daniel Kornstein, a lawyer for Rybolovlev, said that despite the ruling, the case against Sotheby’s “achieved our goal of shining a light on the lack of transparency that plagues the art market. That secrecy made it difficult to prove a complex aiding and abetting fraud case.”

Sotheby’s meanwhile told CNN in a statement that the verdict reaffirmed its “commitment to upholding the highest standards of integrity, ethics and professionalism,” and reflected a “glaring lack of evidence” that it cheated Rybolovlev.

Jurors in Manhattan federal court needed less than a day to reach a verdict, in a trial that lasted about three weeks.

US District Judge Jesse Furman had last March let Rybolovlev pursue fraud-based claims over the Leonardo, and works by Gustav Klimt, Rene Magritte and Amedeo Modigliani. Rybolovlev originally sued over 15 pieces of world-class art  though Furman dismissed fraud-based claims over the other 11 works, including art from Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Rybolovlev was allowed to sue over “Salvator Mundi” even though his ownership had proven unusually profitable.

In a statement emailed to CNN, via his representatives, Bouvier said: “The New York court proceedings were a surreal charade in which people argued over an alleged fraud that had never happened.”https://madusekali.com

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