Inside the Art Fraud Feud of the Century

An explainer about what exactly went down in that Manhattan courthouse.

Digital collage by Elvin Tavarez.

Last month, much of the art industry was transfixed on the goings-on in a courtroom in downtown Manhattan, where the Russian businessman Dimitry Rybolovlev and a group of Sotheby’s auction house representatives were taking turns on the witness stand.

The matter at issue was a group artworks that Rybolovlev had purchased via the Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier. The Russian accused Sotheby’s of conspiring with Bouvier and defrauding Rybolovlev out of tens of millions of dollars in art sales—and Sotheby’s denied any wrongdoing. The works in question are masterpieces, not least of which was Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. That work later made headlines for a totally different reason, when Rybolovlev sold it at Christie’s for $450 million in 2017.

Rybolovlev ended up losing his case against the auction house last month, and the verdict is likely the last gasp in a high profile art fraud dispute that has travelled to courtrooms all over the world over the last years.

And the Sotheby’s trial this January was just part of a wider story that actually tracks back to a time before 2014 when the Russian businessman spent around $2 billion acquiring a world class art collection of works by the likes of Paul Gaugin, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. His right-hand man in getting him these works was Bouvier. Their relationship soured when Rybolovlev discovered that Bouvier was marking up the prices, and in some cases, Bouvier would speak with Sotheby’s to get works evaluated. After years of litigation and court actions, the two men eventually settled out of court in December, 2023.

While the details of their settlement are fully confidential, the proceedings with Sotheby’s in January have shed light on the secretive world of our business dealings. Senior market reporter Eileen Kinsella, has been following this dispute for years, since the very beginning and watched the trial in person last month. This week, Eileen speaks to Kate Brown about this epic court battle.

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