Work of the Week: ‘Le domaine d’Arnheim’ by René Magritte

The work is among the blue-chip pieces Dmitry Rybolovlev alleges he was overcharged for—and new details about by just how much emerged in court last week.

René Magritte, Le domaine d’Arnheim (1938). Courtesy of Christie’s.

At the heart of Dmitry Rybolovlev’s lawsuit brought against Sotheby’s are just four works, and this one specifically was center stage in court this week as Sotheby’s executive Sam Valette took the witness stand on January 16. Probed by questions from Rybolovlev’s attorney, Daniel Kornstein, Valette confirmed new private sale details that suggest the work’s price had increased by more than 24 times its original valuation by the time the Russian collector bought it just two years later. Rybolovlev sold the painting at auction at a $30.8 million loss only a few years after that.

Previous legal proceedings revealed that Rybolovlev was invoiced $43.5 million for the purchase of Le domaine d’Arnheim on December 5, 2011 by the Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, who the collector accuses Sotheby’s of helping defraud him of $1 billion by providing Bouvier with overblown estimates for blue-chip works, such as this one.

According to documents submitted in court this week, a May 2009 Sotheby’s draft valuation noted the painting was initially only valued at £1.2 million, or around $1.8 million based on the exchange rate at the time. In September 2011, when Bouvier reached out to Valette about purchasing the work, an email exchange between Valette and another Sotheby’s colleague cited an offer price of $9 million and then $12 million in an attempt to get the then-owner to sell. The owner was unmoved by these figures but Valette, spurred on by Bouvier’s insistence on buying this particular painting, queried what an “exceptional” price would be for the work, suggesting $20 million. At the time, the auction record for Magritte was $12.6 million for L’Empire des Lumières. 

The seller confirmed on November 10, 2011 that they would accept a sale price of $25 million, according to another email submitted in court. In December, after invoicing Rybolovlev, Bouvier’s company Blancaflor executed a purchase agreement for $24.1 million, countersigned by Valette.

Furthering the email exchange between Valette and Bouvier dated November 11, 2011, Valette estimated that the private sale price of a work comparable to the record-setting L’Empire des Lumières would be around €40 million to €60 million (around $52 million to $78 million based on historical exchange rates), more than four times the work’s public auction record at the time. Bouvier subsequently communicated this tidbit on Magritte’s market to Rybolovlev’s man in negotiations for the acquisition of Le domaine d’Arnheim.

Despite the catapulting price of the 1938 surrealist landscape, Rybolovlev sold the work for £10 million ($12.7 million) in 2017 at Christie’s, according to the Artnet Price Database. That’s well in line with the original private sale offer of $9 million to $12 million (that the previous owner turned down), but a whopping 70 percent decrease from the $43.5 million Rybolovlev paid.

Bouvier and Rybolovlev reached a settlement agreement prior to the start of the New York trial involving Sotheby’s.


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