(Bloomberg) -- Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier appeared for questioning by Geneva prosecutors over accusations of fraud tied to his sale of more than $2 billion worth of artwork to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.
The sales spanning a decade spurred a bitter feud between the two men and scrutiny in Monaco, Singapore, the U.S. and now Switzerland. Dressed in a dark suit and brown loafers, Bouvier and his lawyer entered the Geneva Ministry of Justice buildings Thursday to meet with Yves Bertossa, who replaced Jean-Bernard Schmid as top Geneva prosecutor. Such meetings can be the trigger of criminal proceedings and formal accusations. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office would not confirm more than the fact that the two men met.
Ryboloblev, who made an $11 billion fortune selling a pair of Russian fertilizer companies, and Bouvier have been locked in battle since early 2015 when the Russian filed a criminal complaint for fraud against the Swiss that led to Bouvier’s brief arrest. Rybolovlev has alleged in Monaco and Singapore, and now in Geneva, that Bouvier misrepresented the original cost of the works and then overcharged him by as much as $1 billion. Bouvier says he was merely charging top dollar to a willing buyer who wanted a world-class art collection.
“This is about a complaint that led nowhere in Monaco, Singapore or Bern,” David Bitton, Bouvier’s lawyer, said by telephone, referencing complaints brought earlier in other jurisdictions by Rybolovlev. “Mr. Schmid already said there were no grounds for a case, and now we have a prosecutor who doesn’t want to redo an inquiry that has already been done.”
This isn’t the first time Geneva prosecutors took a look into the dealmaking between the two men. Schmid, who retired, led a 2015 search of Bouvier’s offices at his former art-storage company, Natural LeCoultre SA, which is based at the Geneva Free Ports, and froze Bouvier’s Geneva bank accounts.
However, there wasn’t jurisdiction to pursue a case given the alleged wrongdoing happened elsewhere, nor were there grounds to pursue Bouvier for suspected money-laundering in Geneva without proof of wrongdoing, Schmid said at the time.
Geneva prosecutors are required to look into the case because Rybolovlev’s complaint was forwarded from Bern to Geneva for review.
“My clients have faith in the justice of all the relevant jurisdictions,” Tetiana Bersheda, a lawyer for the holding trusts that Rybolovlev used to buy the artwork, said in a statement.
Separately, federal tax authorities in Bern said in August that they had opened a special investigation of “suspicion of serious tax infractions” in Bouvier’s tax affairs. The Tribune de Geneve estimated that Bouvier could be responsible for as much as 165 million Swiss francs ($175 million) in unpaid Swiss income tax for periods when Bouvier said he was living in Singapore and for profits from some of his holding companies.
That prompted Geneva Mayor Remy Pagani to issue a statement demanding that if the estimates for his tax arrears are true “every last cent must be repaid.”
(Updates with comments from Bouvier’s lawyer in fourth paragraph.)
To contact the reporters on this story: Hugo Miller in Geneva at firstname.lastname@example.org, Stephanie Baker in London at email@example.com.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at firstname.lastname@example.org, Christopher Elser, Alan Katz
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.