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FINE ART PROBE Geneva art broker investigated for fraud in Monaco

Bouvier's free port in Geneva that houses precious art works

(Keystone)

Yves Bouvier, an enterprising Geneva businessman who built an empire in free port facilities stretching from Europe to Asia has been arrested in Monaco on charges of defrauding collectors by overcharging them.

Bouvier, whose Geneva facilities are popular with collectors who use them to legally dodge taxes for storing and selling priceless art and expensive wine, was being held along with two other Swiss who are under investigation by Monaco’s attorney general.

His Geneva-based firm also operates warehouses in Luxemburg, Monaco and Singapore for wealthy collectors who can steer clear of paying import taxes or duties as long as their goods are stored at the free ports and can also avoid transaction taxes if works are sold at the free port.

In Geneva, the canton owns the majority of the free port. Geneva Free Ports and Warehouses pays the canton for the right to serve as its landlord, but its most important tenant is Bouvier’s firm, Natural Le Coultre, which has become one of the world’s biggest specialists in storage, packing and shipping of works of art and valuable items. The firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the potential victims of the alleged overpricing is Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire and president of French soccer club AS Monaco, who became known as the “fertilizer king” for making a fortune from potash mining.

A Swiss court last year ordered the Geneva resident and co-owner of Monaco’s football club to pay more than CHF4 billion ($4.2 billion) to his ex-wife in what could become the biggest divorce settlement in history.

At least two other Swiss were being held as part the investigation by the Attorney General of Monaco, Jean-Pierre Dréno, into alleged price manipulation and money laundering, according to newspaper reports.

A lawyer for the Rybolovlev family, Tetiana Bersheda, said the investigation launched by judicial and police authorities in Monaco against Bouvier pertains to “some information about possible fraud and manipulation of prices on the art market” that the family received. Bouvier had also organised the first international fine art fair at Moscow in 2004.

The family had a working relationship with Bouvier for more than ten years, according to a statement from Bersheda provided to swissinfo.ch, but “the scope and all the victims” of the alleged fraud are not yet clear. The investigation could “provide more transparency on the world art market and enhance its good practices,” she added.

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