Acheter la revue imprimée

The final sale and the first doubts

It might well be Mark Rothko's most beautiful work, but it has been slumbering in a crate in Singapore Freeport for the past five years. Rothko's №6 has been placed under seal and is at the heart of the conflict between Yves Bouvier and Dmitry Rybolovlev. The former bought €2.5 million worth of Petrus wine from the Moueix family who owned the painting. He was hoping to sell it on to the second man at a €60-million profit, and that led to his arrest in Monaco. However, the canvas might also form the basis for an amicable agreement because its value has gone through the roof.

Anne-Gaëlle Amiot for
Anne-Gaëlle Amiot for

His favourite painting; “an incandescent masterpiece”: that is how Yves Bouvier describes №6 (Violet, Green and Red), which features on the cover of the catalogue raisonné of Mark Rothko, the brilliant American post-war painter. “He sets me buzzing, he hypnotizes you,” he adds before highlighting its perfect condition. “The owner kept it in the dark, so the pigments are as luminous as ever.”

And yet five years after it sparked a war between the Genevan businessman and the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, the canvas languishes in a high-security compartment of Singapore Freeport, subject to round-the-clock video surveillance and biannual inspections by representatives of both parties, who are themselves overseen by the sheriff of Singapore, the person who placed the painting under seal. Its future may be uncertain, but its price has risen to $180–250 million according to valuations has seen. It was bought for a “mere” $80 million in 2014.

It is on Saturday 2 March 2013 at the luxurious chalet Dmitry Rybolovlev owns in Gstaad that Yves Bouvier first mentions №6. In an email sent the same day, Mike Sazonov, the Russian oligarch’s financial adviser, enquires about the price. Bouvier writes back the same day: “I haven’t got the price. I’ll ask without insisting too much. That would be better.”

A few weeks later, thanks to the connections of his friend and business partner Jean-Marc Peretti, the Genevan businessman is invited to Bordeaux to meet the Moueix family, the proprietors of the famous Petrus vineyard, to admire the magnificent painting. In order to ingratiate himself with the Mouiex family, who are courted by art dealers from around the world, Yves Bouvier buys over €2.5 million in wine from them between April 2012 and December 2013, according to documents we have seen.

A cancer delays the negotiations

Yves Bouvier had already sold three paintings to the Russian oligarch in the first few months of 2013 for a total of 137 million Swiss francs — a Toulouse-Lautrec, a Modigliani and a Picasso. The Rothko could wait, especially as Bouvier subsequently pulled off one of his greatest coups by acquiring Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, for 123 million francs, on which the Genevan would make a profit of 45 million.

Incidentally, this painting’s extraordinary story didn’t stop there. In November 2017 Dmitry Rybolovlev sold it via Christie’s for $450 million. . . but that is a completely different story.

The Genevan tried again the next year, urging the Russian to view Rothko’s №6 in late June and then, when that didn’t happen, before 21 July 2014. “If we’re not first, their [sic] will be a crazy auction between many interested parties,” he writes. Dmitry was in bad health, so the meetings were postponed to August.

Concerned about his best client’s health, Bouvier asked Olga Khorobrykh, one of his assistants, to translate a message for “Dima” on 15 July: “I’m sad to hear his health is bad. […] As his friend, I can go and spend some time with him wherever and whenever he wants. I’m entirely at his disposal […].”

rothko no 6.jpg
№6 (Purple, green and red) by Mark Rothko which could now be worth €180–250 million. It is under seal at Singapore Freeport

On 26 July, after reiterating his wishes for a speedy recovery, Bouvier wrote: “The exclusive price of the Rothko, for me and non-negotiable, is 150 million euros,” before waxing lyrical: “A price of 140 is a very good deal for Rothko’s incandescent masterpiece.”

But the purchase had been practically a done deal for two months. Back on 31 May, Yves Bouvier received a handwritten contract proposal from Charlotte Moueix for $80 million. The response from the Russian camp was disappointing. They would need to sell other works to find the cash to fund this purchase, particularly in view of the divorce verdict reached on 14 May 2014 in Geneva, which declared that Dmitry had to pay 4 billion Swiss francs to his ex-wife.

On 28 July 2014 Yves Bouvier backed down and said he would set to work “liquidating” some paintings from the Russian’s collection.

Discussing a deal when the deal’s already done

Two days later, Yves Bouvier upped the ante. He suggested investing five million, then ten million of his own money to make the painting more affordable for his client. Negotiations resumed a week later. On 4 August he told Mike Sazonov by email that “the painting is much more beautiful in real life than in the photos” and made up a new lie that Rothko’s owner would be willing to sell Modigliani’s sculpture Tête for €60 million. The following week, around 17 August, Mike Sazonov and Yves Bouvier had lunch together at Bouvier’s usual table at Tzing Tao in Avenue de Sécheron, where they agreed on various purchasing strategies . . . even though the deal was already done. On 12 August 2014 the family who inherited the Petrus vineyard had sold the Rothko painting to the offshore company MEI Invest for $83.5 million. Seven months later, on 20 March 2015, Jean-Marc Peretti, the go-between, received a $4 million commission.

From that moment until his arrest in Monaco on 25 February 2015, most of the exchanges between Sazonov and Bouvier were the product of the Genevan’s feverish imagination as he desperately plotted how to make a profit of $60 million on this painting. Did he perhaps sense that this might be his final sale? It’s impossible to say. What is certain, though, is that he expended an inordinate amount of energy on this particular painting.

For example, one week later on 19 August, Yves Bouvier and his partner Tania Rappo to whom he had, by this time, paid €94 million in commissions, flew to the private island of Skorpios, which Dmitry Rybolovlev had bought from a descendant of Aristotle Onassis a year earlier. They made this trip to the billionaire’s bedside, where he is suffering from prostate cancer, “to convince me to make the acquisition”, Dmitry Rybolovlev later tells the Monaco courts.

The Russian camp imputes the basest of motives to the Genevan: “I think that Bouvier was sure Dmitry was going to die,” someone close to the oligarch tells us. “It would have been the perfect crime, as no one would have ever bothered him again.”

Bogus conversations

However, the oligarch slowly recovered from his cancer on his island under the care of Dr David Samadi, a urologist specializing in the use of the DA Vinci surgical robot. Negotiations resumed. When Yves Bouvier learned on 9 September that payment had been delayed, he pretended to be shaken to the core in an email sent to Mike Sazonov: “This is very tricky. Terrible even!”

The next day he staged a bogus conversation in which the owner of the Rothko “isn’t listening” (despite the painting having already been in Bouvier’s possession for a month). From then on, he alternated the carrot and the stick to get paid, never entertaining the slightest doubt that he would eventually prevail. Coincidentally, it was during this same period, on 17 September 2014, that he inaugurated his free port in Luxembourg in lavish style, having invested €60 million in it.

This was when things started to go downhill for Bouvier. On 22 November Dmitry Rybolovlev invited Yves Bouvier to his birthday party at Monaco Yacht Club. There, he presented him with an New York Times article stating that Sotheby’s sold Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for $75 million, whereas Yves Bouvier had always talked about the price being around $122 million. He was stupefied.

For the very first time, the Genevan panicked. In the middle of the party, at 9.08 p.m., he wrote a text to his associate Jean-Marc Peretti: “I’m in the shit. He has no more cash and he wants to auction off all the Picassos and the Rodin. He can’t understand why he’s the only one whose art isn’t making him any money and why I can’t sell the 10 works he’s entrusted to me. Basically, I’m a dead man and I’d be better off just vanishing. I’m such a loser and I’ve screwed everything up. We’ll talk tomorrow, but I really am in bad shape.”*

* Yves Bouvier now claims that this text referred to his number-one client’s threats because he had refused to go along with the Russian’s demand to bribe Genevan judges (see Episode 5).

A thinly veiled threat?

When asked about this problematic party by the Genevan state prosecutor in June 2018, Dmitry Rybolovlev declared: “I noticed that Bouvier was very embarrassed during my birthday party. I thought his spirits were low and I wanted to do something to pick him up. He replied that he’d understood and would do all he could to take on this task and focus on it.”

For his part, the Genevan interpreted the Russian’s embrace as a thinly veiled threat. “I’ve made your fortune, now you save mine,” Dmitry Rybolovlev allegedly whispered into his ear.

By 26 November Yves Bouvier had got his mojo back. He claimed that a museum director in Abu Dhabi was “favourable” and “keen” to buy a Picasso. Then, further on in the email, he gets worked up about the payments he hasn’t received. “[They] should have been made long ago […] I’m disappointed and angry.”

They went back to the negotiating table and intensified their efforts to reach a deal leading up to Christmas. On 14 December Bouvier span a yarn about having talked to the owner of the Rothko and having to “avoid a scandal” because the person was “furious”. The exchanges were characterized by a restlessness on Bouvier’s part, who made a series of proposals to swap paintings or offer compensation for potentially low prices, constantly inventing fits of anger by his negotiating partners, lighting imaginary fires and extinguishing them immediately afterwards. At 7.46 p.m. on 16 December Bouvier wrote regarding the seller of the Rothko: “He’s in such a bad mood. He doesn’t want to listen, so I’ll let the storm blow over.” At 10.30 he takes it up a notch: “Good evening, Mike, I got shouted at. He’s in such a bad mood and stressed out because of a dinner.” Mike Sazonov seemed to be running down the clock. Did he already have doubts?

A fertile imagination

Yves Bouvier tried to keep up the pressure. The next day, he claimed to be going to dinner with the owner of the Rothko painting. At 8.15 p.m., he wrote: “We’re talking about anything but the transaction and I’ll spend some time with him this evening. I’ll send him to sleep.” When the Russian oligarch’s financial adviser asked him if they were still together and “what is the next step”, Yves Bouvier shot back: “We’re drinking wine talking about this and that.”

But the Russians insisted that they wanted to sell some of the works they had bought, stating that they would “prefer a swap due to the current global situation”. Bouvier defended his lack of results: “I have to be careful and not present too many works or the market will think we’re selling wholesale.”

Today, five years after the events, Yves Bouvier sticks to his guns. “If they’d given me time, I could have sold the whole collection for twice the price!”

No peace for the wicked. Between Christmas and New Year, Yves Bouvier invented more and more fibs. One time he said, “I’ll take care of everything […] We’ve put out the fire!”; another, he boasted that he was on the point of flogging a Toulouse-Lautrec at Sotheby’s: “This will be my Christmas present.”; the next day, he claimed that the sheikh of Abu Dhabi and his wife wanted to travel to Singapore to view Gustav Klimt’s Wasserschlangen.

The secret

2014 was drawing to a close. Dmitry Rybolovlev was about to have an encounter that would permanently alter his relationship with Yves Bouvier. On 31 December, he was staying on the island of Saint-Barth in the French West Indies. He was having a merry lunch with a group of people including his compatriot Roman Abramovitch, who introduced him to the art dealer Sandy Heller. This man revealed to Rybolovlev the real price of Modigliani’s Nu couché au coussin bleu. The owner of AS Monaco discovered that he had paid 33 million Swiss francs over the odds and the cash had gone straight into the Genevan businessman’s pocket.

The oligarch was beside himself. He thought about calling Tania Rappo, the woman he had trusted implicitly for nearly 20 years, to tell her what he had found out but decided against it, realizing that she might already know and have been in on the swindle. So he rang up his favourite lawyer, Tetiana Bersheda, who was at the ballet in Monaco. After about 15 missed calls, they finally spoke. She could tell that he was livid. He instructs her to report the fraud to the police as soon as possible, and she did so on 9 January 2015 in Monaco.

Bouvier was blissfully unaware of all this. Mike Sazonov arranged for Rybolovlev’s collection to be transported from Singapore to Cyprus. In the words of a former employee: “Most of the collection was at Fine Art’s premises and some of it at Helutrans. In January we received a phone call asking us to send the items without delay. One or two pieces went to Nice, the rest to Cyprus.”

“Not a lot of fun”

Mike Sazonov insisted on recouping the money from the sales, which Bouvier was trying to use to compensate the owner of the Rothko who was . . . none other than himself. On 6 February, the Russian financial adviser wrote: “We need the money urgently […] so please transfer the whole sum […] We can arrange a meeting with the seller if you think that might help.”

With his back to the wall, Yves Bouvier replied: “I hope you realize what you’re asking of me here. And that we’re 100% in the wrong.”

That afternoon he added: “This really isn’t a lot of fun”, but he didn’t engage with the idea of a meeting.

Getting nowhere, Yves Bouvier went all in on 8 February: “If we don’t pay up on Monday, the consequences will be:

  • I will lose all credibility.

  • The case will be handed to a lawyer. He’s mentioned Maître Bonnant in the past. We’re at breaking point!

  • I don’t want to be sued and have to deal with the courts or Bonnant.”

Sensing that he had the upper hand now, Mike Sazonov didn’t ease up. “Yves, we really need this money […] Transfer the whole sum.” He then repeated his request for a meeting between the seller of the Rothko and Dmitry Rybolovlev.

However, the Genevan did not transfer the money from the sale of the Toulouse-Lautrec to the Russian, claiming that he had “used it to pay the seller of the R” (in fact, he kept almost £10 million, while £2.5 million are still stuck at Sotheby’s, awaiting the outcome of the trial).

He added defiantly: “I shall explain my decision in person to DR [Dmitry Rybolovlev] when I meet him next week”, before laying it on even thicker: “Your request to use this money fraudulently for you and me is unacceptable. I’m an honest man […] I have kept my commitment by giving this money to the seller.”

Bonnant the bogeyman

The meeting was set for 23 February. Yves Bouvier couldn’t go; he was sick. He sent Tania Rappo in his place and emailed her the “Rothko — How to proceed” file on 21 February. The document was translated into Russian two days later. Ever the good envoy, Tania Rappo reeled off the arguments laid out in the document word for word to Tetiana Bersheda and Dmitry Rybolovlev.

At the meal to mark Defender of the Fatherland Day (formerly known as Soviet Army and Navy Day), Tania Rappo repeated that the Moueix family was ready to sue and call in the lawyer Marc Bonnant, whose name Bouvier was wielding as a bogeyman. “Yves was so proud when he saw you liked the painting!” she simpered.

Convinced that Tania Rappo was trying to deceive them, Tetiana Bersheda decided to record their conversation, unbeknownst to the speaker. This recording and the ensuing complaint in July 2015 prompted the Monegasque judge Édouard Levrault to request access to her mobile phone and search the call history, which had been deleted. Four years later, those messages were to reveal the lawyer’s close connections with people high up in the Monaco judiciary and led to the trial being quashed, sending tremors through the upper echelons of the Principality.

On 25 February Yves Bouvier finally travelled to Monaco, where he was arrested in the lobby of Dmitry Rybolovlev’s building. His arrest triggered the scandal you have been reading about.

As for Rothko’s №6, Yves Bouvier had it sent from Bordeaux to Geneva in 2014 and from there to Singapore at the beginning of the following year. There it is still, under the sheriff’s seal. Yves Bouvier claims that the masterpiece belongs to him because the Russian has not paid for it in full. Dmitry Rybolovlev, on the other hand, thinks it is his because it was bought with his money. This painting might be the key to resolving the war between the two men.