Billionaire Collector Dmitry Rybolovlev Wins Right to Hold Yves Bouvier Trial in Singapore

A high stakes, $1 billion art battle heats up.

Dmitriy Rybolovlev. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Russian billionaire collector Dmitry Rybolovlev’s complicated international battle with Swiss “Freeport King” Yves Bouvier was kicked up another notch with news that his $1 billion lawsuit will now play out in Singapore court.

On New Year’s Eve in 2014, Rybolovlev alleges that he discovered that he paid millions more for Amedeo Modigliani’Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion, and that Bouvier, acting as his middleman, pocketed the difference. The Russian collector has filed legal actions against Bouvier in Paris, Monaco, and Hong Kong.

And now the case proceeds in Singapore, where Bouvier is a permanent resident. The High Court dismissed an attempt by Bouvier to halt a civil claim brought against him by two companies owned by Rybolovlev. Bouvier argued that the dispute should be handled by Swiss courts, since both he and Rybolovlev were in Switzerland when the first of many sales were made in the early aughts.

Senior Judge Lai Siu Chiu handed down a written decision on March 22, stating that the Singapore suit should proceed. However, she said that the case could be transferred from the High Court to the Singapore International Commercial Court, which was set up in January 2015 to decide cross-border disputes, strictly for commercial cases.

The transfer would “level out” any perceived advantages to Bouvier or potential difficulties for the plaintiffs, the judge wrote.

She acknowledged that Rybolovlev’s “proprietary and equitable claims are not recognized under Swiss law.” She continued, “That would cause grave prejudice to the plaintiffs if this Suit is stayed in favour of Switzerland as the forum.”

However, “Yves Bouvier is convinced that Swiss law applies to the case brought against him and that Switzerland is the most appropriate and convenient jurisdiction to try this dispute,” said Ron Soffer, a Paris-based attorney who is representing Bouvier, in a phone conversation with artnet News. On March 29, Yves Bouvier filed for leave to appeal the decision.

At issue is whether Bouvier, in his endeavors to help Rybolovlev assemble a world-class art collection, was acting as an agent, or simply had a buyer-seller business relationship. The two men met in 2003, when Bouvier helped Rybolovlev acquire 38 artworks.

Rybolovlev asserts that in late 2014, he realized the Bouvier had vastly inflated prices on some of the artworks he had sold to him. Bouvier countered that he was entitled to mark up the prices.

In Singapore last summer, Rybolovev and his companies won a Mareva injunction that froze Bouvier’s assets, but it was lifted a month later by a local appeals court.

Bouvier requestesd that the Singapore High Court suit be suspended. According to the Straits Times, Bouvier’s other lawyer, Edwin Tong, said Switzerland was the right forum to have the dispute heard, since the art acquisitions took place there and four initial paintings sales were governed by agreements subject to Swiss law.

Alvin Yeo, a lawyer for Accent and Xitrans (which are companies owned by Rybolovlev), insisted that Singapore is the proper venue since Bouvier, lives, conducts business, and owns substantial assets in Singapore. Furthermore, 22 of the art transactions took place between 2009 and 2014, when Bouvier was based in Singapore.

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