Anne-Gaëlle Amiot for
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Yves Bouvier's free ports halted in mid-boom

Yves Bouvier used to be known as the "freeport king". He was in the process of building an empire, with franchises all over the world, when his arrest in Monaco and the ensuing war with his best client, Dmitry Rybolovlev, stopped him in his tracks. His two free ports - one in Luxembourg, the other in Singapore - are no more than ticking over: the former is half empty and the latter has never turned a profit. Singapore Freeport's main tenant, the auction house Christie's, has left recently, as have several banks who were storing gold there. Undeterred, the Genevan dreams of opening further free ports in Dubai and Vladivostok, but to do so he must wait for his feud with the Russian oligarch to end.

Publié le 24 décembre 2020 08:03. Modifié le 19 janvier 2021 15:31.

The taxi draws up outside a menacing grey building in the pouring rain. A caretaker activates the security doors of the Luxembourg Freeport as Grand Duke Henri and his wife María Teresa look on from their portrait on the wall. Reached directly from the airport runway, this €60-million barbed-wire and concrete complex devised by the Genevan architecture agency 3BM3, a cross between a submarine base and something out of a spy film, is designed as a home for priceless items. Its 11,000 square metres hold 700,000 bottles of wine as well as classic cars and paintings. 

A device that recognizes the blood flow in a person’s finger, thermal cameras, a nitrogen fire suppression system, an oscilloscope and military hardware, and an alarm system hooked up to the Luxembourg police, who are ready to intervene within three minutes are all part of an impressive security set-up, but none of this can dispel an impression that the entire place is merely ticking over.

The director, Philippe Dauvergne, will be here any minute. A copy of the audit firm Deloitte’s report Art and Finance is lying around in the luxurious waiting room. The Genevan shipper Yves Bouvier’s great stroke of genius was his early and instinctive realization that art would be a safe investment — and that, whatever happened, free ports would be safe. As in Singapore, where he built the free port in 2010, he convinced Jean-Claude Juncker’s government in Luxembourg to approve special laws that would facilitate such an enterprise. They were passed in 2011, and the free port was inaugurated with great pomp and ceremony on 17 September 2014. The entire government and the Grand Duchy’s royal family attended, to the strains of the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

The rules are clear

“We’re a criminal’s worst nightmare,” the director begins. He has his speech off pat. With the exception of a comma here and there, it is exactly the same as the one given by his Genevan counterpart, Alain Decrausaz, a close associate of Yves Bouvier, who agreed to meet us and then refused to take us around the Geneva Freeport on the excuse of “security measures”.

Philippe Dauvergne, a former senior official in the French customs department, has plumped for openness, but the rules are clear: no photography. He complains about the bad press his company gets and launches into a long monologue about the inviolability of his free port and his theory of four times 100: 100% checks on everyone entering; 100% checks on goods, one by one; 100% checks on everything and everyone leaving; and 100% checks on money laundering.

“We complied with anti-money-laundering legislation five years before it came in. The companies who come here are on the anti-money-laundering register… They have to know the name of every shareholder and every goods item that comes in. Even rolls of Sellotape are checked.”

Philippe Dauvergne steers clear of the fact that free ports are not considered financial institutions and therefore avoid implementing most of the regulations that now apply to banks. As a result, they are accused of being vaults that allow the ultra- wealthy to avoid declaring their valuable assets in their home countries. He gets a bit carried away. “We are regularly held up as an example by the OECD and are on their good practice list,” he says, pointing to a framed “platinum certificate” on the wall with the remark that it was awarded by the OECD.

Modiglianis here?

When we check this with the OECD’s director, Pascal Saint-Amans, these claims turn out to be hot air. “Neither the Task Force on Countering Illicit Trade nor any other entity within the OECD has worked on, commented on, approved or provided any kind of information to the Luxembourg Freeport,” he informs us later by email.

Philippe Dauvergne stays jovial, even when we ask him what kind of checks he conducts. He passes the buck to the Luxembourg authorities. “I don’t have the slightest idea what’s inside the Freeport. If there are any Modiglianis here, I wouldn’t know where they are! I don’t have the legal authority to carry out checks and it’s not my job. It’s up to the accredited operators. The financial prosecutor’s office can mandate them, though.” When we contact them, the prosecutor’s office state that they have not conducted any investigations so far.

The director has been reeling off figures and arguments in the waiting room for three-quarters of an hour now. Finally, he opens the second security door. It gives into a sort of tunnel with a road marked out with black and yellow lines, and removable anti-tank pillars that can withstand 40 tonnes of pressure. There are infrared sensors and cameras everywhere.

“Know what that is?” the director cries, pointing to a sort of hose with a circular metal nozzle on the end. “They have the same things in the Channel Tunnel. You use it with an oscilloscope to see if there’s anyone inside the trucks.”

In February 2018, a delegation from the European Parliament’s TAX3 commission was given the same guided tour. “It’s a black hole. There are no checks whatsoever,” the Portuguese Socialist MEP Ana Gomes concluded at a press conference.

One week to drill into the vault

Philippe Dauvergne considers this a biased verdict. “The group sent by TAX3 was not legally constituted because its mission relating to the Panama Papers was completed. We received them as an act of courtesy, but they had already made up their minds. Some of them were in the middle of their re-election campaigns.” With a hint of irony, he adds: “Only three of the 40 complained.”

We are now walking through a series of air-conditioned rooms at a steady 21°C. The Freeport is fitted with its own generators, which can supply enough power to be self-sufficient for three days. “Downstairs,” Dauvergne congratulates himself, “we have category 12 vaults. Someone would have to drill continuously for a week to penetrate them.”

A lift takes us up to the rooftop. We can see five parked planes. The director likes this direct link to the airport. “There’s no need to take a public road,” he says, “so it’s great for companies that transport gold. In Geneva and other places, at least 30 people know about a delivery, if you count customs and security. Here, it’s just the three customs officers. Brinks loves it because they don’t need an escort.”

But Philippe Dauvergne has a different kind of headache right now. The free port is suffering from the Bouvier affair. Bouvier is the major shareholder of Eurocenter Investment SA, which owns Natural Le Coultre Luxembourg SA, the company to which the free port pays rent. According to the former French customs official, the free port is currently operating at 70% capacity, but other sources says that it’s less than 50%. The Freeport has also been up for sale for the past two years, but there are no buyers.

The Freeport? A tarnished brand

Yves Bouvier took a step back in 2015 to avoid his name damaging the business, handing over responsibility to a Frenchman called Olivier Thomas, a familiar face around the racecourses where he is said to have sunk the money he won on the lottery. According to documents we have seen, Yves Bouvier paid him a commission of €3.5 million on 15 October 2010 for Picasso’s Joueur de flûte et femme nue, which he subsequently sold to Dmitry Rybolovlev.

Olivier Thomas stated to the specialist horseracing paper Paris Turf in June 2014 at the ceremony for the Jockey Club prize: “Free Port Lux [the name of one of his horses] was impressive. He was moving so fast, I felt I was in the presence of a phenomenon.” However, the man who calls himself an “art consultant” didn’t get the Luxembourg Freeport moving at the same pace. Olivier Thomas was forced to withdraw from his role after being indicted by French prosecutors on 6 July 2015. Picasso’s step-daughter, Catherine Hutin-Blay, accused him of stealing two paintings from her, and he was charged with abuse of trust, fraud, concealment and money laundering. The case is still ongoing.

The British journalist Georgina Adam, author of Dark Side of the Boom: The Excesses of the Art Market in the 21st Century (Lund Humphries Publisher Ltd) explains that “the Freeport is a tarnished brand. The Luxembourg authorities aren’t at all happy that Yves Bouvier is still around.”

Citing an art market that has become “over-emotional”, Philippe Dauvergne says that he is now seeking to attract the Swiss watchmaking industry and the pharmaceutical sector. “If you have a concentrate for a medicine the size of a bucket and worth 25 million, it’s too precious to transport and store at the airport. If a palette knocks it over, you’ve lost everything.”

We reach a large room that is sometimes open to the public. It is dominated by a sofa, a designer table covered with orange carpet and a huge fresco by a Portuguese artist called Alexandre Farto. Along the sides are eight showrooms for displaying pieces intended for sale. Most of them are empty, apart from one that is decorated with photos of Olivier Thomas’s horses at the Prix de Deauville in 2013.

“The price has to be announced for every sale,” Philippe Dauvergne continues. “If people don’t obey the rules, we can kick them out in less than 12 hours. […] We recently banned a statue from entering because the papers regarding the end client were not above board. The statue stayed out in the car park. They got the message, I can tell you that.”

A curtailed visit

When we enquire about Jean-Marc Peretti, Yves Bouvier’s associate who once owned up to 7% of the shares in Freeport, Mr Dauvergne claims he doesn’t know him and has never heard of him. And when we ask for more details about his connections with a certain Khagani Bashirov, he gets angry. Khagani Bashirov, a French citizen of Azeri origin, is considered by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) to be one of the links in the Azerbaijani Laundromat corruption scandal that helped to bribe European diplomats and politicians to the tune of $2.9 billion. Philippe Dauvergne used to be an investor alongside Khagani Bashirov in 13 companies, several of them in Geneva.

“I had nothing to do with that stuff. I was on a mission for Thales [a French industrial group] to build a control tower at Baku airport,” he says in his defence, adding, “I have absolutely no links to him now,” forgetting that they sit together in the Luxembourg-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce.

When contacted by, Khagani Bashirov explains: “I worked for more than 10 years with Mr Dauvergne, who is a brilliant person. I was a consultant for Thales in Azerbaijan from 2002 to 2017.” He thinks that his connections with Philippe Dauvergne were “instrumentalized by enemies of the Luxembourg Freeport […] because I was on the European banks’ blacklist.”

Our questioning has put a dampener on things, and the visit is curtailed. Questions are not always welcome in Luxembourg, as the journalist Fabien Grasser, editor-in-chief of the Luxembourg daily Le Quotidien for 10 years, learned to his cost. Returning from holiday last year, he was placed on special leave and banned from working. His articles about the dark side of the Luxembourg financial industry and the Freeport undoubtedly cost him his job.

“I wasn’t especially interested in the Freeport before March 2017,” he says. “A MEP questioned me on the subject the first time I appeared as a witness at the European Parliament during the LuxLeaks scandal, and I started digging.”

“Now you’ll stop, right?”

His first articles pointed out the contradictions between the answers given by the Freeport’s managers and customs.

“In theory, there is complete transparency,” he says, “but ultimately I always had more new questions than answers, as if the plot was thickening.”

The chairman of the Freeport board, Robert Goebbels, a former Socialist economy minister and a leading political figure in Luxembourg for 30 years, “wrote two letters to my editor,” the journalist says. “The Geneva lawyer of one of the shareholder’s also had a bailiff hand me insulting letters in the form of a right to reply,” he adds. That lawyer’s name is Didier Bottge and the shareholder is Jean-Marc Peretti, the go-between Yves Bouvier installed as manager of the Nelombos gallery on his premises in the Geneva Freeport. “I was congratulated every time I published an article, but I was also asked: ‘Now you’ll stop, right?’”

He did stop but not of his own accord, but it did nothing to help fill up the Freeport, which is merely idling along — like its elder brother in Singapore. Same Genevan architectural agency, same shades of grey and red, same security standards. Inaugurated four years earlier at a cost of $80 million, Yves Bouvier’s Asian project never really took off.

“On paper, it was 100% rented out, but we never got above 30-40% in terms of volume,” a former Natural Le Coultre employee tells us, adding that the infrastructure was never viable. This wasn’t for want of promoting Singapore Freeport as a state-of-the-art facility. The ex-employee recalls countless official tours, including one by Angolan government ministers, as well as several visits by Alain Decrausaz, the director of Geneva Freeport, to boost Yves Bouvier’s projects in Asia.

The situation further deteriorated after the Genevan’s arrest in Monaco in February 2015. One of the installation’s main tenants, Christie’s auctioneers, which had rented 6,000 m2, officially left the Freeport on 12 June 2018.

Yves Bouvier contests this description. “That’s false reporting by the media. Christie’s wanted to get out of logistics, but their clients stayed. The business was taken over by a company called Fine Art Storage.”

What Yves Bouvier neglects to mention is that Fine Art Storage was bought up by Asia Freeport Holdings Pte — a group he owns through a subsidiary in the Netherlands.

12 million in the red

Although it has been up for sale for the past two years like its younger brother in Luxembourg, Singapore Freeport doesn’t appear to be able to attract any buyers. As a matter of fact, Asia Freeport Holdings Pte’s financial statement shows that it is 12 million Swiss francs in the red. Yves Bouvier acknowledges that business isn’t good in Singapore but attributes this to the economic damage caused by the war his former client Dmitry Rybolovlev is waging against him.

“The free port is losing money,” he says. “For me it was a tool, a platform whose operating costs were part of my overall business expenses.”

Tony Reynard, the Freeport’s chairman and a childhood friend of Yves Bouvier’s, was recently obliged to leave his post. “His salary was too high, and he didn’t get on well with the local management,” says a former employee who wishes to remain anonymous.

Maybe salvation will come from elsewhere for Yves Bouvier and his vision of free ports as cornerstones of the global economy. Prior to 2015, his associates made several reconnaissance trips to Dubai, Doha and China in view of opening free ports there. There were discussions about permits.

The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, surprised everyone last August when he announced that he wanted to see the construction of 10 freeports in the UK post-Brexit to create 86,000 jobs. “Various [British] journalists contacted me,” Yves Bouvier says. “I told them it was a good idea, but that they would have to adopt the same strict rules and the same security checks as I have in mine.”

In late January this year, it was the former Maltese prime minister, Joseph Muscat, who got in touch with him to think about opening a free port in Malta. Having just resigned in the wake of the scandal surrounding the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Joseph Muscat remembers visiting Singapore Freeport in November 2014 and has plans for his island. He contacted Yves Bouvier just after the Maltese government approved the enlargement of Valetta airport.

Vladivostok on his mind

Tireless entrepreneur that he is, Yves Bouvier longs for one thing: an end to the conflict with his erstwhile best client. That is the sine qua non for embarking on his dearest project — a free port in Vladivostok.

He has already sent some associates to explore this option. They made contact with Yury Trutnev, the Russian deputy prime minister and the Kremlin’s envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, who visited Singapore Freeport in May 2016. By a twist of fate, Yury Trutnev is a close friend of Dmitry Rybolovlev, who backed Trutnev’s successful campaign to become governor of Perm in 2000.

The Russian oligarch and the Genevan shipper just can’t keep out of each other’s way.