This part of Geneva, all pane-glass windows, bold architecture and open-space offices, smells of modernity. The World Trade Organization, the World Meteorological Organization and the Biotech Campus are all here. Sécheron feels very much in the middle of today’s world. Cash and projects have catapulted this former industrial area into the 21st century. All of the buildings have been given a facelift — all but two. Nos. 6 and 8 Avenue de Sécheron are still dull and grey, stuck in the 1970s.
What makes this all the stranger is that their owner, Yves Bouvier, handles hundreds of millions of francs and juggles a staggering array of projects around the world.
The key to this enigma is that the man known as the “freeport king” is tangled up in legal proceedings on three different continents. He has bigger fish to fry than renovating the headquarters and warehouses of his family business, Natural Le Coultre. In any case, the premises have been seized as collateral by the Swiss tax administration, which suspects him of having concealed a substantial portion of his income and is demanding 165 million Swiss francs excluding late-payment penalties and arrears.
Sécheron means “sloping meadows” in Genevan patois. It gained this name because the whole place used to be cow pastures until the 19th century when a strict grid of streets sprung up below the railway tracks in the throes of mass industrialization. Every day, 2,000 workers, labourers, cutters and foremen would stream into the red-brick cathedral of the Ateliers de Sécheron. Here, they cast and assembled electric locomotives, mercury-arc valves, parts for hydroelectric power stations, circuit breakers, traction rectifiers and speed regulators for trains, subways, trams and trolleybuses.
It is hardly surprising then that the Natural Le Coultre et Cie (NLC) transport business set up shop just next-door in 1911 in order to deliver the necessary spare parts to this flagship of Genevan industry and carry its finished steel products out into the world. Teams of up to 12 horses were needed to pull the heavy loads up the nearby slopes. By the 1920s NLC had expanded into an empire employing going on for 1,000 staff.
The outstanding apprentice
In 1953, an energetic 17-year-old called Jean-Jacques Bouvier was apprenticed to Natural Le Coultre, which still has 15 or so horses stabled in Rue de Zurich. He devoted his life to the company — and he is still alive today. It is he who opens the door of 6 Avenue de Sécheron on an autumn morning in 2019.
“You’re here to see Yves?” he asks rhetorically. Bouvier Senior points the way up to the second floor and appears to be in fine fettle at the ripe old age of 83. He was the outstanding apprentice whose hardworking nature and nose for business so impressed the Le Coultre family that in 1983 they sold him a company with 70 employees and a turnover of 20 million Swiss francs. In 1989 Bouvier Sr set up the Fine Art Transports division of Natural Le Coultre, and this cast the mould for everything that was to come.
Upstairs on the second floor, 56-year-old Bouvier Jr looks grim. “The Rybolovlev affair has destroyed my reputation. I’ve had to sell the Natural Le Coultre group to safeguard jobs. I’ve lost most of my banking and insurance partners. I’ve lost just about everything. I’m not homeless, but nor am I a multimillionaire. I’ve rediscovered the essential things in life.”
Wearing an old petrol-blue woollen sweater, he offers us a coffee. The flat is small and untidy. The former “freeport king” returns to his worn leather couch and sits down. The walls are dotted with a dozen photos of contemporary artworks. Four phones compete for space on the table, the sole signs of his life as an international businessman.
It had all started so well, though.
The Bouvier family originally hails from Chancy, a hamlet at the western tip of the canton of Geneva, a once-rural community hemmed in on one side by the Rhone, which forms the border with the French department of Ain, and the Laire, a stream marking the border with Haute Savoie. These country roots are a source of family pride, as is the claim —by father and son alike — to have never felt comfortable in a suit and tie. It is highly likely that this geographical position on the very edge of Switzerland played its part in the worldview of both Bouviers and their rise to become the kings of import and export.
A taste for risk and speed
Yves Bouvier grew up in the delightful village of Avully, two miles from Chancy, where he is remembered as an energetic and somewhat unruly boy with the hyperactivity of the burgeoning alpha male.
“The countryside was my school,” he says. “We used to spend the afternoons fooling around on tractors.” When he wasn’t driving, young Bouvier would race off to Morgins with the Geneva ski club. He graduated from De Saussure high school and started an Economics degree at the University of Geneva, although he didn’t complete the course. “It wasn’t my priority,” he says. “I preferred having fun and doing sports.”
His favourite sports were mainly ones involving speed — horse riding, carting, skiing and snowboarding, in which he became an instructor.
“Whether it’s skiing or doing business, Yves loves taking risks,” says one of his long-time friends, the lawyer Alexandre Camoletti. “I know he’s an excellent skier, and he was fearless.”
Another old friend, same ilk. The corporate lawyer Tony Reynard, chose not to respond to our questions, but in 2015 he told Sam Knight, a reporter for the New Yorker, about their crazy go-karting nights and skiing the rock-strewn slopes of Morgins or Champex in the afternoons. “And kind of sport that was extreme, he liked. He skied like a maniac.”
These two pals, Camoletti and Reynard, were in on every one of Yves’ adventures — and still are. They were by Yves Bouvier’s side when he became the richest shipper in Geneva, believing for a time that he’d be the ultimate art dealer. They’ve never ceased to enjoy the perks their energetic and ambitious friend sends their way, but as Bouvier modestly declares: “I’m a loyal friend.”
Tony Reynard, whose family is from the Valais, was director and shareholder of at least five successive companies belonging to the dazzling shipper. The corporate lawyer, whose studies at Stanford were financed his friend Yves, always dresses in jeans and trainers, and though sure of himself and having a high opinion of his own worth, has a relatively frugal lifestyle. He was a semi-professional swimmer at the age of 20 but injury prevented him from taking part in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Until recently, he was the boss of the Singapore free port that Yves Bouvier established in 2010, earning almost one million francs per year according to a source who prefers to remain anonymous.
Alexandre Camoletti’s family originally came from the Piedmont, but he grew up in Geneva. He cannot praise his self-taught friend highly enough. “Yves is very resourceful. He didn’t have any formal art qualifications, but he has a good eye, as they say.” Alexandre Camoletti also admires Bouvier’s loyalty: “He will never betray someone who’s been loyal to him. Whenever a member of staff ought to have been sacked, he always found a reason to keep him or her on.”
The third musketeer
There is a third musketeer: Yves Meyer, another Genevan, bon vivant, discreet and cultured, with excellent contacts. He and Yves Bouvier met when they were young and went go-karting and snowboarding together when the new sport first appeared in the 1980s. Yves Meyer used to work for Banque Pasche, which French media outlets nicknamed “banque cash” due to a tax-evasion scandal in Monaco in 2013 that hit its CEO, Christophe Mazurier. Meyer and Mazurier are both on the board of the Geneva-based Palms Family Office Suisse SA, with a subsidiary in Singapore managed by Yves Meyer, who still lives there now.
Concurrently, Yves Meyer looks after the shipper’s interests and manages his friend’s fortune and investments. From 2010 to 2015 he was director of five of the 14 companies Yves Bouvier set up in Asia, and many assets are registered in his name, in particular three non-trading French real-estate companies — Meyer, Berry Island and Malika — which own apartments in Paris. The two men are joint owners of a flat in Singapore which is both Yves Bouvier’s official residence and the address of the Singapore branch of Palms Office, the wealth management firm on whose board Yves Meyer still sits.
Masterpieces, not Ikea sofas
However, we have not yet reached the point in our story when we can flit between jurisdictions and luxury assets like yachts, private jets and prestigious apartments on Avenue Matignon. We shall first provide a little more family background.
In 1983 Jean-Jacques Bouvier bought Natural Le Coultre on Avenue de Sécheron and found some odd jobs for his son, who had just turned 20 and was in need of money. Abandoning his dreams of owning a bar in a ski resort or opening a ski school, Yves worked — somewhat reluctantly, according to people close to him — in different departments of his father’s business and learned on the job.
Ten years later, father and son decided to scale up their operation. In 1994 they founded a company called Expositions Natural Le Coultre and thereby set a course in their dealings that turns out to be crucial for what comes next, as well as making their fortune. There was more money to be made from transporting valuable items such as paintings and sculptures than was to be had from moving old-fashioned wardrobes and Ikea sofas. Little by little, their firm developed into the go-to partner for Swiss museums including the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny and large fairs like Art Basel.
Yves Bouvier found the art world so exciting that he threw himself headlong into his work and spent far less time skiing. “From the very beginning, I loved being in contact with works of art. Touching them, handling them, admiring them. From miniature to monumental, the prehistoric era to living artists, my job was to keep them safe while they were packaged, moved and stored,” he says. “I felt like an archaeologist.”
It was this Damascene conversion that drove his decision to sell the removal business to the Borgstedt family, longstanding friends who owned the Pélichet company, allowing Natural Le Coultre to specialize even more in the art market. Most importantly, though, he bought a 5% stake in Geneva Freeport, 86% of which was state-owned, making Yves Bouvier the establishment’s largest private shareholder, as well as being its largest tenant by surface area. This move also offered him unsurpassed insight into market trends.
A secret weapon
This was a golden age for Natural Le Coultre, with its clients’ storage demand growing by 10-15% per year. But Yves Bouvier wasn’t satisfied. He knew he had to strike while the iron was hot if he wanted to move up to the next level and so, gradually, he diversified his activities. Alongside transporting, packing and handling works of art, he put in place four showrooms at the Freeport where his clients could exhibit and sell them, as well as a scientific analysis laboratory and a restoration laboratory called Fine Arts Expert Institute and Lumiere Technology Multispectral Institute respectively. With a burgeoning reputation for speed and a willingness to work at all hours, he headed to Paris, where he toured galleries, museums and art fairs, offering his services as he had already done to Art Basel. He became a trusted intermediary to many of them.
He did, however, possess a secret weapon to persuade gallery owners to work with him. According to a Geneva-based lawyer who participated in some of these transactions, he offered to move not only the artwork but also the money, as a fiduciary, via offshore firms he had set up for this very purpose, most of them domiciled in the Virgin Islands or Panama.
Yves Bouvier often took an extremely flexible approach to actual freight too. “He often got us to drive to Paris and back by car to make sure the works of art were transported in the greatest secrecy,” says one of his former employees. This provided an opportunity for Bouvier to get his hands on some very precious information. “His role was a bit like a matchmaker’s,” someone close to him says. “People came to him and said, ‘I’ve got a Picasso I’d like to get rid of. You wouldn’t know a buyer, would you?’”
It still remained to be seen to whom he could sell the Picasso. It remained to be seen whether there would be a fantastic opportunity to implement all the changes Yves Bouvier had initiated at Natural Le Coultre, of which he had by now become managing director following his father Jean-Jacques’ retirement.
The long-awaited opportunity
Yves Bouvier’s true stroke of genius was his realization that Swiss banking secrecy, which many regarded as being engraved in the granite of the Alps, was under siege and that capital was going to have to find alternative channels. This was in the early 2000s, six years before a man named Bradley Birkenfeld denounced UBS’s illegal practices to the US authorities, seven years before the global financial crisis drew the G20’s attention to Switzerland, where part of their tax receipts were kept hidden, and eight years before Federal Council member Hans-Rudolf Merz proclaimed the end of the country’s banking secrecy (although it did in fact survive for a few more years until the advent of automatic information sharing). Yves Bouvier, a shipper by trade, understood that a Picasso bought by an offshore firm for 50 million Swiss francs and stored in a freeport warehouse could be an easier secret to keep than an HSBC account in Geneva.
He had already provided this kind of service, pocketing hundreds of millions of Swiss francs, selling a painting for over 10 million francs — a Gauguin in 2000 — and making a few investments with the property developer Christian Aouad. But Yves Bouvier wanted more. He was on the lookout.
The long-awaited opportunity presented itself in August 2002 in the form of Dmitry Rybolovlev. Eighteen years after the event, Yves Bouvier looks back on that decisive moment with great lucidity. “If I had to do it all over again, I would. When a major collector walks into your gallery, you do everything in your power to respond to his wishes.”
As we shall see, neither the wishes nor the response were very typical.
Research assisted by Vincent Magnenat