The Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev should be having a pretty good month. Last week, he turned a $270 million profit on Leonardo da Vinci‘s painting Salvator Mundi (c. 1500) in what is now the priciest art sale ever. But his victory lap may have been cut short by a claim for declaratory judgment filed in Geneva against one of his companies by Sotheby’s and his former art advisor Yves Bouvier.
The pair separately are seeking to block Rybolovlev’s efforts to use confidential documents related to his original purchase of Salvator Mundi from Bouvier in a sale brokered by Sotheby’s. Neither Sotheby’s nor Bouvier is seeking monetary damages but they have asked a judge to forbid the documents from being used in a case he has threatened to file in the UK. Sotheby’s and Bouvier maintain that Switzerland is the proper forum for the dispute and that Rybolovlev is seeking to manipulate the legal system by trying to gain access to the documents in the US rather than in Switzerland or the UK.
The dispute stretches back to 2015, when Rybolovlev first sued former “freeport king” Yves Bouvier in Monaco for allegedly overcharging him on the Leonardo and other works. The case, which has now expanded to courts in multiple countries, hinges in part on Rybolovlev’s purchase of Salvator Mundi for a reported $127 million from Bouvier, who had bought the work only months before for a reported $75–80 million.
Now, Sotheby’s has been dragged into the fray: Rybolovlev is seeking to use confidential documents to sue both the auction house and Bouvier in UK court, alleging that Sotheby’s was complicit in Bouvier’s actions. (A judge had previously ruled that the auction house must turn over the documents to Rybolovlev, who indicated that he intended to use them to pursue Bouvier alone.)
In late October, Rybolovlev’s attorneys told a judge in New York that they planned to sue both parties in UK court and sought approval to use the Sotheby’s documents, which had been permitted in two other branches of the suit in Singapore and Monaco.
In a statement, a representative from Sotheby’s said, regarding the Swiss action: “We called upon the court to reject any claims of wrongdoing that might be leveled against Sotheby’s by Mr. Rybolovlev and confirm that the company did nothing to cause Mr. Rybolovlev any alleged harm. Sotheby’s has no knowledge of what transpired between Dmitry Rybolovlev and Yves Bouvier and there is no justification whatsoever for Mr. Rybolovlev to involve Sotheby’s in his dispute against Mr. Bouvier. Any suggestion that Sotheby’s engaged in fraudulent conduct or conspiracy of any kind is categorically false.”
Rybolovlev previously filed unsuccessful motions against Bouvier, including in Monaco, where he first had the advisor arrested three years ago. That case has since come under scrutiny due to Rybolovlev and his associates’ close ties to local police and officials. The Russian collector has also initiated legal action in Singapore and, most recently, Switzerland.
“Sotheby’s had no knowledge of the prices Bouvier charged in any resale of any painting,” the auction house’s lawyers write in the latest documents, filed yesterday in US District Court, “and Sotheby’s derived no financial benefit whatsoever from any such resale.”
A spokesperson for Rybolovlev’s family office confirmed that the documents were filed late last night and that they are currently under review. “We will respond in due course,” the spokesman said.
Immediately after sale last week, it was clear that the record sum paid for the Leonardo had done little to assuage the bitter battle between the billionaire and his former advisor.
“Thanks to the professionalism and expertise of Christie’s, the record-breaking sale of da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi has helped restore some of the value of the collection,” a representative from the office told artnet News in a statement soon after the sale. “This is a welcome development for the Rybolovlev family trusts as we undertake legal proceedings to address the shocking alleged fraud committed by Yves Bouvier who deceived the family, all while pretending to be a friend and advisor.”
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