Russian Billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev Can Proceed With His $380 Million Lawsuit Against Sotheby’s, a Judge Says

It's a win for Rybolovlev in his relentless campaign against the auction house and his former art dealer, Yves Bouvier.

Dmitry Rybolovlev poses in front of two allegedly stolen paintings by Pablo Picasso, Espagnole a l'Eventail (L) and Femme se Coiffant. Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images.

A US District Court judge ruled yesterday that Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev can proceed with his lawsuit against Sotheby’s for what he claims is the auction house’s role in helping Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier defraud him by charging exorbitant prices for artworks. The judge also declined some of Sotheby’s request for redactions to details from the court documents.

“This case is a small part of a larger international saga,” wrote Judge Jesse M. Furman in a 21-page decision that largely denied Sotheby’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. At its core, the case revolves around Rybolovlev’s claim that Bouvier defrauded him of $1 billion by way of helping him build an art collection. Rybolovlev claims that Sotheby’s “aided and abetted Bouvier’s fraud,” in the words of the judge, who added that “the dispute has spawned civil and criminal litigation in at least five jurisdictions around the world—Singapore, Switzerland, France, Monaco, and the United States.”

Rybolovlev also claims that Sotheby’s, which filed a lawsuit against him in Switzerland in November 2017, breached a contract that required the auction house to give him notice before filing the suit. The judge said that “although there is parallel litigation ongoing in Switzerland, Sotheby’s fail[s] to establish that there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ justifying dismissal.”

“Yesterday’s decision—while disappointing—was procedural and did not address the merits of Mr. Rybolovlev’s baseless claims against Sotheby’s,” the auction house said in a statement. “While it allows for the litigation to proceed in New York, it also provides for our ongoing case to proceed in Switzerland, which we have consistently maintained is the appropriate venue for this matter, given that is where the conduct at the center of this dispute occurred. Sotheby’s will vigorously litigate the merits of the case in Switzerland and New York.”

In explaining the decision to unseal certain documents, the judge said consideration hinged on an evaluation of whether the papers are “judicial documents,” which triggers a presumption of public access. He said that the preservation of bargained-for confidentiality does not overcome the presumption of access to judicial documents and that the public cannot have confidence in the court’s administration of justice without being able to see the specific allegations underlying a case.

Daniel Kornstein, an attorney for the Rybolovlev companies, Accent Delight and Xitrans Finance, said in a statement: “We are pleased with these new developments. Of course they are only preliminary skirmishes in what has already been a long-running legal battle, but they—importantly—allow our side to move onto the merits and recover the losses. These new rulings took time, but that time allowed the various judges to give the issues careful consideration and thorough legal analysis and arrive at the correct conclusions. We look forward to the next stages of these litigations.”

The judge ordered a pre-trial conference, set for July 24, in New York, where attorneys for both sides must appear.

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