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Fine Art Probe Geneva art broker denies defrauding art collectors

Is a personal disagreement with Dmitry Rybolovlev (pictured) really behind the claims?

(AP)

Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier is denying any wrongdoing and says he will strongly defend himself against charges of fraud in a high-flying dispute with a Russian billionaire.

Bouvier’s legal troubles have captivated the art world because of the global reach of his Geneva-based empire for storing and shipping fine art and expensive wine.

Bouvier, in a statement provided to swissinfo.ch on Friday, described the claims against him as something of a personal spat with Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire and president of French soccer club AS Monaco who made a fortune from potash mining.

Bouvier was arrested and indicted in Monaco in late February on charges of price fixing and money laundering, related to allegations of defrauding collectors by overcharging them. He was released on bail. A court in Singapore, where Bouvier lives, ordered a worldwide freeze on his assets in mid-March.

“The Singapore proceedings are the latest development in the ongoing dispute started by Dmitry Rybolovlev,” said Bouvier, whose Geneva-based firm oversees an empire of free port facilities in Geneva, Luxemburg, Monaco and Singapore. He said “there is no merit in Dmitry Rybolovlev’s claims against him”.

Wealthy clients such as Rybolovlev use the facilities to legally avoid paying taxes to store, sell and ship priceless masterpieces and other exceptional artwork and items beyond the reach of most people.

Asset freeze

Bouvier added that he will “vigorously defend the proceedings in Monaco and Singapore, and has instructed Singapore lawyers to apply to the court to set aside” the order to freeze his assets. Such an order, known as Mareva injunction, can be applied domestically or worldwide.

He said companies held by the Rybolovlev family Cypriot trust began a Singapore civil action against him on March 12 – the date the asset freezing order was issued -- that made “similar underlying allegations as those in the Monaco proceedings, which they had earlier commenced” against him.

According to Bouvier, the order to freeze his assets was obtained illegally because it was done on an ex-parte basis without notifying him or allowing him to be represented at a hearing in Singapore court.

His firm, Natural Le Coultre, has become one of the world’s biggest specialists in storage, packing and shipping artwork and other valuables. It is the main tenant at the free port operated by Geneva Free Ports and Warehouses and mostly owned by canton Geneva.

Rybolovlev, who was ordered to pay CHF4 billion ($4.2 billion) in a divorce settlement in a Geneva court, provided authorities in Monaco with “some information about possible fraud and manipulation of prices on the art market” allegedly perpetrated by Bouvier, a lawyer for the Rybolovlev family, Tetiana Bersheda, said in a statement provided to swissinfo.ch.

According to the statement, the two men had a working relationship for more than ten years but now the investigation into Bouvier has the potential to “provide more transparency on the world art market and enhance its good practices.”

Bersheda said in another statement, after the March 12 court order, that it prohibits Bouvier from divesting up to $500 million (CHF495 million) worldwide in personal assets. According to the order, obtained by swissinfo.ch, Bouvier also must turn over a 1951 Mark Rothko painting titled “No. 6 (voilet, vert et rouge)” that is worth millions.

The order puts Rybolovlev first in line in “the potential race with other victims of the alleged fraud” to be compensated, the statement said.

In a March 6 interview with Swiss newspaper Le Temps, Bouvier said that over ten years he sold Rybolovlev about forty major works that are valued around CHF2 billion.

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