How a Swiss Art Dealer Bought and Sold Da Vinci’s 0 M. Salvator Mundi Painting to Russian Oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev in an Apparently Shady Scheme

How a Swiss Art Dealer Bought and Sold Da Vinci’s $450 M. Salvator Mundi Painting to Russian Oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev in an Apparently Shady Scheme

It can’t be easy to sit through a list of times you’ve been fleeced and admit that each time you thought the man holding the shears had your best interests at heart. Yet, that was the lot of Mikhail Sazonov, the former chief financial officer for Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, in the Accent Delight International (ADI) v. Sotheby’s trial in Manhattan federal court on Wednesday. 

Sazonov was behind the wheel at ADI and Xitrans, the two entities though which Rybolovlev bought art from Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier. While Sotheby’s is named in the lawsuit, the blame for Rybolovlev being overcharged by $1 billion was laid Wednesday primarily at the feet of Bouvier and Sazonov by both the legal teams of the plaintiff and the defendant. Bouvier, for buying works from under Rybolovlev’s nose then passing them on to the budding collector with a whopping markup (all the while taking his two percent advisor’s commission) and Sazonov for failing to notice it. 

Throughout Wednesday, you could be forgiven for wondering whether Sotheby’s was on trial at all—attorneys for both sides took their time detailing their argument that Bouvier was constantly lying to Sazonov, and that Sazonov took everything Bouvier said at face value. The defense went as far as to make sure the jury knew that Rybolovlev was aware of every communication between Sazonov and Bouvier and signed off on every transaction.

Of the multiple schemes and fabrications attributed to Bouvier in court the most audacious involved Rybolovlev’s acquisition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which set the record for the most expensive painting ever sold at $450.3 million in 2017 at Christie’s. 

The Mundi was first brought to Rybolovlev’s attention not by Bouvier, but rather by a business associate named Seth Harrison, according to a series of emails presented to the jury by Sotheby’s attorney Sara Shudofsky, a partner at white shoe firm Arnold & Porter. The emails were primarily between Harrison and Sazonov, but included a forwarded message between Harrison and Ashton Hawkins, who was described as a “point of contact” for the Mundi sellers, in which the beginning stages of a potential sale to a Rybolovlev family trust were discussed.

However, instead of moving forward with Hawkins’ proposed plan, according to Sazonov, he instead consulted Bouvier—our trusted agent and advisor on all things art,” in Sazonov’s words. Bouvier’s apparent advice? A bait and switch.

According to Sazonov’s testimony and evidence presented in court by Rybolovlev’s lawyer, Zoe Salzman, Bouvier advised against showing any interest. That would just cause the sellers to inflate the price. After all, they would be dealing with a billionaire. Instead, according to Sazonov, Bouvier would “go behind the scenes and act as if he was looking for someone else in order to get a better price.”

During the cross examination of Sazonov, Shudofsky made clear her interpretation of Bouvier’s plan: A meeting with Rybolovlev and the Mundi sellers should be arranged. Then, according to an e-mail apparently written by Bouvier and shown to the jury, the sellers should be informed that their Russian billionaire is no longer interested. This will “shake their confidence,” “break their morale” and lead to a deflated price. In the meantime, Bouvier described what he called in the email his “alibi,” a French expat collector obsessed with secrecy and with much less money than Rybolovlev.

“Did you ever have reason to doubt the advice Mr. Bouvier gave you?” Salzman asked Sazonov. His simple answer: “No.”

What followed were a string of emails in which Bouvier pretended to be in merciless negotiations with the Mundi sellers. “Another top collector is interested” he wrote in one of the emails, “I think M’Salini [sic], Italian Bouygues of construction. Important private museum.” In another email, Bouvier wrote, “He’s a real tough one but I am fighting hard and taking as much time as needed,” as offer after offer, $90 million, $100 million, $120 million, was “rejected.” Eventually Rybolovlev nabbed the painting at $127.5 million. In this case, Bouvier was kind enough to lower his normal commission fee to one per cent, over a million dollars. After all, he didn’t find the painting and, according to Sazonov, that was part of his job. 

Of course, neither Sazonov nor Rybolovlev knew that Bouvier had already bought the Mundi himself for $83 million, then marked up the painting by $44.5 million, according to court documents, before selling it to Rybolovlev’s company.

During cross examination, Shudofsky attacked Sazonov for his apparent lack of due diligence in dealing with Bouvier. “Did you ever ask around about who the purported sellers of these works were?” she asked. “Did you ever ask Mr. Bouvier for documents showing how much he paid the original owners? Did you think that these original owners would sell tens of millions of dollars of art without a contract? You’ve been in finance for years.”

“That’s how I thought it worked in the art world,” Sazonov said.

As for Sotheby’s, the supposed defendant in the case, there was little mention other than the implication that, while Bouvier and Sotheby’s specialist Samuel Valette seemed in emails to have a formal, strictly business sort of relationship, the two were actually friends.

The article “How a Swiss Art Dealer Bought and Sold Da Vinci’s $450 M. Salvator Mundi Painting to Russian Oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev in an Apparently Shady Scheme” by Daniel Cassady was published on 01/11/2024 by