Court Grants Billionaire Rybolovlev’s Request for Sotheby’s Documents in Ongoing Feud With ‘Freeport King’

The protracted legal battle stems from the record-setting sale of a Leonardo da Vinci painting.

Dmitry Rybolvelv
Dmitry Rybolvelv. Courtesy of AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau.

The protracted and high-profile international legal battle between billionaire Russian art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev and his former art advisor Yves Bouvier lurched forward yet again yesterday when a US Court of Appeals judge affirmed an earlier ruling ordering that documents related to the collector’s art purchases in the US be released in order to be used in a case pending in Monaco.

Rybolovlev’s lawyers believe the documents will expose details surrounding sales brokered by Bouvier that they claim were subject to outsize markups. The feud between the billionaire collector and the so-called “freeport king” can be traced back to one particularly high-profile purchase: that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Christ as Salvator Mundi. 

Soon after Rybolovlev bought the work for $127.5 million in 2014, he was surprised to read in the New York Times that the picture had sold for considerably less: “between $75 million and $80 million.” He was also surprised to learn that Sotheby’s was an additional intermediary involved in the transaction.

Yves Bouvier stepped down from his position running Luxembourg’s Le Freeport in 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In the original suit filed last year, Rybolovlev alleges through his companies Accent Delight and Xitrans Finance “that Bouvier’s account of the sale was entirely false, that he failed to disclose Sotheby’s role, and that he inflated the purchase price in order to pocket the $52 million difference.” The suit also claims that Bouvier lied about prices for 37 other artworks and defrauded Rybolovlev to the tune of $1 billion over the course of their 11-year relationship.

The billionaire collector originally asked to obtain documents related to all 38 sales because he “did not know with certainty how many of the [artworks] were acquired by Bouvier with Sotheby’s involvement or whether Bouvier paid an undisclosed commission to Sotheby’s.” Eventually, after much wrangling, Rybolovlev’s team settled on a cache of documents that relate primarily to the Salvator Mundi sale.

The latest ruling, by second-circuit Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, includes more than ten pages of extraordinarily technical detailed discussion, background, and other legal precedents explaining why he granted the latest application for discovery.

Ron Soffer, a Paris-based attorney representing Bouvier, says that the latest development only reinforces a decision made in May. “This is nothing new,” he told artnet News. “The Rybolovlev camp has had these documents for months and gave them to the Monaco judge months ago.”

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, ca. 1500.

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, ca. 1500.

Indeed, the extraordinarily contentious legal tussle has been further complicated by the continued back-and-forth in proceedings Rybolovlev initiated in other countries—including Singapore and France—with mixed results. Judges have allowed different sets of documents to be produced in cases in each different country.

Neither Sotheby’s nor Rybolovlev’s attorney responded to request for comment by publication time.

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