Anne-Gaëlle Amiot for
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Asymmetric loyalties

On Wednesday 4 March 2020, Geneva's head prosecutor, Yves Bertossa, held a new hearing in the Rybolovlev v. Bouvier case. Our story is now coming to its conclusion. This latest and last episode is about all the money that is missing or flowing like water, the money that dictates the shifting alliances. We discover that Alp Services, the detective agency, has been in financial difficulty due to Yves Bouvier's unpaid bills; and that after having faced Marc Bonnant in court during the lawyer's defence of his ex-wife, Dmitry Rybolovlev invited him to join his legal team and fight Yves Bouvier. The "Mozart of the Bar" agreed but then had to recuse himself because of a conflict of interest. The lawyer may still be able to play a decisive role in the affair, however, by orchestrating an out-of-court settlement.

Publié le 30 décembre 2020 11:43. Modifié le 19 janvier 2021 15:31.

If, for this tenth and final episode in our series, we had to sum up the Bouvier affair in two words, those words would be “money” and “loyalty” — as well as the influence the former has over the latter, qualifying or even annihilating it.

To begin with, let us look at the main protagonist, Yves Bouvier, whom a person with detailed knowledge of the affair describes as being “very, very loyal, but asymmetrically”. For five years between 2003 and 2008, he was a friend of the Rybolovlev’s and presented them various masterpieces that were for sale. Their dispute is well documented: the Russian couple believed that he was an intermediary who earned only a 2% commission on the transactions, whereas he saw himself as an art dealer and made a substantial profit on each work. Was he a swindler, or was his client culpably naïve? The Geneva courts still have to reach a verdict, but the Genevan businessman, as we saw in Episodes 4 and 9, repeatedly lied about the prices at which the paintings’ previous owners were selling them.

When the couple broke up acrimoniously in 2008, Yves Bouvier presented himself as Dmitry’s friend and offered him his assistance to store the paintings in the free ports the Genevan had bought. In the meantime, though, he continued to pass on information regarding the value and whereabouts of the paintings (see Episode 3) to the other legal team constituted around Marc Bonnant, who was representing Elena Rybolovleva. But then Bouvier betrayed Elena in February 2014 by flying her on his private jet into a trap he had helped to set in Cyprus (see Episode 4) where she was arrested on arrival on a false accusation of having stolen a diamond ring.

When, in a disturbing parallel, Yves Bouvier was himself arrested in Monaco in similar circumstances, sparking his war with Dmitry, he rushed back into Elena’s arms and signed a secret agreement with her lawyer, promising to cooperate fully with her search for assets prior to the divorce in return for all charges related to his role in the Cyprus debacle being dropped.

Dmitry Rybolovlev’s loyalty to his wife Elena was another factor in the whole affair. According to Elena, it was her husband’s multiple infidelities that precipitated their divorce and the legal battle over the division of their assets. All the same, the oligarch had no qualms about instigating a rapprochement with his ex-wife and settling their divorce agreement out of court so that they could turn their joint fire on Yves Bouvier.

The loyalty of the lawyers and detectives hired by the various parties was yet another major issue in this war costing millions. Let us first analyse the role of Mario Brero, the boss of Alp Services, a market-leading investigative agency employing around 20 people. During the divorce proceedings, he lined up with Elena and his friend and client Marc Bonnant, with whom he shares a certain elegance, a certain truculent turn of phrase and also certain clients including the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

When war broke out between Bouvier and Rybolovlev on 25 February 2015, Mario Brero coordinated an operation on a virtually unprecedented scale for his firm (see Episode 5). Throughout this period, Yves Bouvier relied on the detective to lead his defence task force and for financial and psychological support, spending many hours each day in the detective’s offices at 36 Rue de Montchoisy in Geneva, sharing his surges of hope and his outpourings of rage, even weeping occasionally. Over two years, Alp Services ran up nearly 6 million Swiss francs in expenses and fees, but Yves Bouvier was sometimes tardy in paying. His final payment in late February 2017 was for less than 50,000 francs, even though he was already over a million in debt to the investigative agency by this time, and his arrears continued to mount that year, peaking at 2.7 million francs.

The head of Alp Services began to get seriously alarmed in spring 2017.Yves Bouvier’s debts were putting the company’s cash flow in danger, as it had only 150,000 francs in share capital. Mario Brero warned his client that his finances were very strained.

“Mario told us that we wouldn’t stop working for Yves,” an ex-employee recalls, “but we should scale things back.”

But the threat was also coming from the Rybolovlev camp, which had launched legal proceedings against Mario Brero in various jurisdictions and on a variety of charges in 2015. As a result, the detective had considerable outgoings, especially as he was also taking legal action against the oligarch and his lawyer Tetiana Bersheda. The whole Alp Services team had to tighten its belt to stop the firm from going bust.

That summer, the detective informed Yves, his client and longstanding friend, that he was going to try to halt these costly proceedings by proposing to the Russian camp that both sides drop their respective charges. The ex-shipper seemed to understand this and gave Mario Brero his go-ahead. Brero asked Marc Bonnant to contact the other party. Dmitry Rybolovlev swiftly agreed to bury the hatchet, and on 3 October the two parties signed an agreement to withdraw all their suits. It also prohibited Mario Brero and his agency from acting against Dmitry Rybolovlev in the future. The Russian camp had only one objective in doing this: to hire their former nightmare opponent, Marc Bonnant, and use him in the fight against Yves Bouvier.

So how did the man occasionally known as the “Mozart of the Bar”, an essential figure in this whole affair, respond? “It sounded like fun, so I said yes. With Elena’s consent, I took Dmitry on as my client,” Marc Bonnant confessed to a friend, who told anonymously.

Getting wind of the lawyer’s sudden switch, Yves Bouvier immediately contested it, citing a conflict of interests. This news plunged Marc Bonnant into a rare fury. He took up his pen and on 28 September 2016 sent a letter we have seen to David Bitton, one of Yves Bouvier’s lawyers that reads: “If Yves Bouvier means to raise a conflict of interests on my part, just let him try […]. He will be able to tell the man who lends him his pen all the relevant facts. Here is one possible title: ‘Betrayals by a homunculus.’” There follows a list of the many “betrayals” of the Russian couple he attributes to Yves Bouvier and, quoting a detail from the Cyprus fiasco, Marc Bonnant concludes: “I find it decidedly rash that Bouvier should invite me to enrich my case with a reminder of these past turpitudes.”

However, the most recent addition to the Genevan businessman’s legal team, Christian Lüscher, had a different take on the matter. On 10 October 2017 he reported Marc Bonnant to the Genevan Bar Association for a conflict of interest and published the secret agreement Yves Bouvier and Marc Bonnant had signed two years earlier. The lawyer recused himself forthwith.

In the meantime, relations between Mario Brero and Yves Bouvier had deteriorated due to the latter’s arrears. Each had hired legal representation, the former having mandated Alec Raymond, the latter Charles Poncet, a personal enemy of the detective. Poncet pleaded a abuse of trust, arguing that Brero took advantage of a man who had only just been released from a concrete cell and was being harassed by one of the world’s richest men in order to overcharge him for services that the Bouvier clan regarded as having had no decisive impact.

“Every expense report and fee invoice was properly approved by Yves Bouvier,” a former employee of Alp Services tells us.

A preliminary agreement concluded with Yves Bouvier giving up two of his boats to Mario Brero as security — a luxury Italian Riva inboard, and a Fountain, a kind of four-engine floating rocket. Together they were valued at around one hundred thousand francs.

These boats failed to appease the conflict, however, and it got worse. “The proceedings were brutal, with lots of blows below the belt,” comments someone familiar with the case.

Yves Bouvier confided in Sarah, the escort turned spy (see Episode 6) during a recorded conversation from November 2017, to which we have listened.

Bouvier: I’m not speaking to him [Brero] any more! I’ve taken him to court. I attacked him. I’m angry.

Sarah: Didn’t he do his job properly?

Bouvier: He’s done things I’m not at all happy with. He’s made a pact with someone and I don’t agree. We’re on bad terms.

Sarah: They [Alp Services] have sacked lots of people.

Bouvier: I’m on bad terms with him. He’s lying.

Sarah: They’re all ungrateful.

Bouvier: One person who worked for him and now works for me is José, the Spanish guy. He’s built like that. He comes to reception sometimes. He’s a driver, he does everything. He’s the one who did all the assignments for him [Mario]. Mario paid José 30 francs and Mario billed me 3,000, something like that.

The pact with Mario Brero that Bouvier is referring to here is of course the agreement with the Rybolovlev camp for both sides to cease their proceedings. It is, however, also a reference to the fact that around this time Mario Brero had met the former head of the French domestic intelligence services, Bernard Squarini, who was now working privately, notably for Dmitry Rybolovlev.

Once more, it is Marc Bonnant who coins the telling phrase. “With Bouvier’s keen nose for treachery, it must be easy for him to detect it in others,” the lawyer told a friend.

Mario Brero was sickened. He suspected Yves Bouvier of bringing up his treachery simply to avoid settling his debts. On 25 June 2018, during a hearing in their trial, the detective told the Genevan judges that Yves Bouvier was “fundamentally dishonest” — a very harsh judgement about someone he had long described as “smart” or “crafty” and whom he portrayed to the Genevan judiciary in December 2015 as a “longstanding friend and client”. Nevertheless, in October 2018 the two parties managed to agree on a payment schedule for part of the still unsettled sum claimed by Alp Services.

Judgement pending

Fives years of legal proceedings in five countries. Millions spent on legions of lawyers, PR people and detectives by both sides. A judgement is still pending. It’s hard to identify a winner, and each side has lost a lot in what will, at the very best, be a Pyrrhic victory for one of them. Both Dmitry Rybolovlev and Yves Bouvier have seen their reputations hit rock bottom. Although the Genevan puffed out his chest after the Monaco case was dropped last December, he is not out of the woods yet. He is still accused of fraud, money laundering and abuse of trust in Geneva, where the hearings have continued, year in, year out. His associate Tania Rappo, the Rybolovlevs’ ex-confidante, was questioned this 4 March by the Genevan state prosecutor.

Nor has anything been settled with the federal tax administration, which is demanding that he pay 165 million francs and has seized part of his estate. Discredited in the eyes of banks and insurers, Yves Bouvier has cash problems. His hopes of obtaining damages in Singapore following the extremely restrictive “Mareva injunction” of 2015, which was struck down as abusive because its aim was to cause a loss of business, depends on the verdict the Genevan judges still have to reach — without seeming in any hurry to do so. In addition, the €10 million bail is still frozen in Monaco, awaiting the Monesgasque courts’ final decision.

Although the Russian was affected by events in Monaco last December, he is now focusing on Geneva and hoping to persuade the prosecutor to charge Tania Rappo as well for her role in the scandal. Although Dmitry Rybolovlev’s legal team will have difficulty proving that this was a sophisticated fraud, given the oligarch’s apparent naivety and the high standard of proof required by the Swiss legal system, there is still the small matter of abuse of trust. This is one of the main arguments put forward by the oligarch’s lawyers, since their assessment is that Yves Bouvier spent the money he was given to buy paintings on significant personal expenses unrelated to the works themselves. The Rybolovlev clan is also very hopeful about the trial in New York, where the claim against Sotheby’s is moving faster than anticipated. The U.S. authorities have cast the net wide and should, in the coming weeks, receive answers to hundreds of questions from all the parties involved.

Parallels with the Scherbakov case

There is much chatter in the Genevan legal scene about Yves Bertossa’s sluggish investigation into this affair, when it is now up to the Genevan courts to decide on the crux of the dispute. Some think that the prosecutor, who is reputed for his social conscience, is tired of this conflict between two celebrities whose billionaire quarrels are eating up precious public resources. Others think he has felt repeatedly manipulated by both parties. The prosecutor’s office did not wish to comment on our questions about the progress of this case.

There may, however, be another reason. A different case, which is more advanced, could be decided this year and its verdict may serve as jurisprudence. It does indeed bear significant similarities to the Bouvier affair, and there are probably intersecting interests. Make up your own mind.

The Russian automobile tycoon Vladimir Scherbakov has accused a Swiss-French art dealer, Thierry Hobaica, of having conned him out of almost 100 million francs by helping himself to unseemly profits on the collection the wealthy Russian asked him to assemble on a 5% commission.

Sound familiar? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet . . .

Thierry Hobaica sold the paintings through various offshore companies belonging to — you guessed it — Yves Bouvier, which our man had used for his sales to Dmitry Rybolovlev. Prominent among them are Finatrading, Lardner Commercial and Wang Tak Trading Development Limited. Yves Bouvier also stored the works in Scherbakov’s collection on his Freeport premises.

Another strange coincidence is that Volna, a luxury watch brand which has since gone into receivership and of which Vladimir Scherbakov was a board member, had its registered address at 6 Avenue de Sécheron, the headquarters of Yves Bouvier’s company Natural Le Coultre. On 14 December 2009 the Genevan businessman transferred 122,000 Swiss francs to this watchmaking company. What was the purpose of this bank transfer? The Scherbakov family’s lawyer, François Canonica, did not wish to answer that question.

Yves Bouvier is merely a witness in this trial so far, but there are questions about the role he played in these transactions, some of which were channelled through his companies.

The inconceivable agreement

There is also the inconceivable option. What if Yves Bouvier and Dmitry Rybolovlev — two men who have been waging war on each other for five years in courts around the world — ultimately reached an out-of-court settlement?

Both camps have raised the idea on a regular basis, and each blames the other for going hammer and tongs at it in the courts.

“I’m conciliatory by nature!” Yves Bouvier exclaims.

“Dmitry Rybolovlev has never been totally opposed to the idea of an agreement,” says a source close to the Russian camp.

The devil is obviously in the detail. There is, for instance, Rothko’s №6, currently under seal in Singapore, which both parties claim as their own. And on Yves Bouvier’s side, there is an expectation of compensation for damages estimated at 2 billion Swiss francs! The businessman argues that this sum would make up for his ruined reputation in the art world, the refusal of banks and insurers to deal with him, and the business opportunities he has lost.

And so their positions harden again.

“It takes two to make a deal. […] I’ve suffered more losses than anyone else, more than I earned. Just because he’s worth billions doesn’t mean he can bully me,” Yves Bouvier says.

“We will let legal process run its course and are willing to sue Yves Bouvier to obtain full compensation for the damage he has caused our clients,” retort Dmitry Rybolovlev’s lawyers.

Still, has learned that there was contact at the end of last year between Yves Bouvier’s lead attorney, David Bitton, and his colleague Marc Bonnant. “He told me, ‘Yves trusts no one but you. He wants you to be the intermediary to iron out the general problems he has with Rybolovlev’,” the interested party told a friend.

That particular attempt got nowhere. They may well give it another try, or the whole affair will come to trial in an unprecedented airing of the art market’s dirty washing. Whatever happens, will bring you any further developments in the jaw-dropping fable of the fox and the oligarch.