Anne-Gaëlle Amiot for
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“Yves Bouvier was like a hot-air balloon”

Where we learn how the margins Yves Bouvier applied to his sales to Dmitry Rybolovlev helped his business fortunes soar. These allowed the Genevan to invest anywhere and everywhere, including Angola. He also lived the high life, buying boats, classic cars, a private jet and prestigious real estate in Paris and Geneva, as if seeking to emulate his oligarch client. This is the fourth episode of our series.

Publié le 03 décembre 2020 00:54.

Dmitry Rybolovlev may have been the 59th richest man in the world in late 2008, with a personal fortune estimated at $12.8 billion, but he was weary and felt dogged by bad luck. On 22 December his wife, fed up of his repeated extramarital affairs, files for divorce after 21 years of marriage. Her lawyers immediately came after him for half of his wealth, citing the division of matrimonial assets. Nor did she hire the worst lawyer on offer. The formidable Marc Bonnant, a leading Genevan barrister and an outstanding rethorician, was to represent her.

Read the full French version here

A month earlier, Dmitry Rybolovlev had been summoned to Moscow. A scandal implicating his potash company Uralkali has caught up with him. A water source had appeared in one of its mines in 2006 and the mine had collapsed, leaving a gaping hole under the town of Berezniki and necessitating the evacuation of 12,000 people. The authorities concluded at the time that it was a natural disaster caused by geological factors, but two years later, faced with public protests, the Russian deputy prime minister, Igor Sechin, decided to reopen the inquiry and raised questions about the company’s financial responsibility. Uralkali’s boss was worried that Russia would request judicial assistance from Switzerland.

Keen to shield his assets from the Kremlin and his wife, Dmitry Rybolovlev chose to remove from the Geneva Freeport all the paintings he had bought through Yves Bouvier, with a total value of close to 580 million Swiss francs.

“He asked me for advice on where to store his paintings abroad,” Bouvier tells us. “I suggested Singapore or London. I would take care of all the logistics. I would protect his assets. At a stroke I was no longer a mere supplier but a guardian of the temple.” Bouvier recalls coolly that “all sorts of people were asking me for affidavits”. Both the husband and the wife want him to testify about what he has done for them.

What Dmitry Rybolovlev didn’t know was that the Genevan was playing him both ways. On the one hand, anticipating the divorce, he’d helped the billionaire to invest huge sums of money in paintings in order to reduce the amount of cash in his accounts and have high-value items that can be more easily concealed. On the other, Bouvier had been sending Elena and her lawyer Marc Bonnant continuous updates on the paintings Dmitry had acquired and their precise whereabouts.

As a result, just before New Year, Elena’s legal representatives sent a detailed list of her husband’s assets to the Genevan courts with a request to freeze them. The list included the yacht Anna I, items of furniture, Dmitry’s shareholdings in over 48 companies and a list of paintings along with their precise locations in London and Singapore. Elena told the court in the Virgin Islands, where she also attempted to have his assets frozen, that she had received the information from Natural le Coultre.

The Corsican associate

Questioned about this years later, Yves Bouvier hides behind his role of Swiss intermediary. “I wanted to stay neutral and not get mixed up in the divorce. Otherwise, you end up on the wrong side of them both. They were both potentially important clients, and I didn’t know which one, he or she, would keep the works of art.”

The couple’s divorce only strengthened his position and that of his ally, Tania Rappo, who acted as a confidante of both husband and wife. “Every time I was on the point of signing an agreement with my ex-wife, the two of them [Bouvier and Rappo] impressed upon me not to sign it. They told me she would use any money she received to destroy me,” Dmitry Rybolovlev told the courts in Monaco.

Immediately after this, a new character made his appearance in the Bouvier cast. Jean-Marc Peretti was handpicked by the Genevan to establish and run the Nelombos gallery, which is situated within the Geneva Freeport and accumulated a number of masterpieces, in particular paintings by Picasso. The man claims to be a corporate lawyer despite having no legal qualifications. His CV raises many questions. A Corsican by birth, and “not on good terms with the police”, according to a French intelligence memo, he went off to Gabon to run a casino in the late eighties after quitting fulltime education after high school. He then took charge of the CIC gambling club in Paris, which resulted in his being investigated in June 2018 for money laundering and the illegal practice of banking in an organized gang. The case was temporarily suspended after one of the police officers involved in the search was caught red-handed stealing, but the trial is due to resume in 2020.

Back in early November 2008, we find him in Geneva. His role was to help Yves Bouvier with his extraordinary pursuit of masterpieces and to act as the Genevan shipper’s front man in return for generous remuneration. Under questioning about the Rybolovlev case, during which the police asked him if he was a “straw man”, he declared that Yves Bouvier had given him an Aston Martin “as a token of his friendship”.

Carbon in Paris, and 10 million for Angola

Whereas a portion of Dmitry Rybolovlev’s assets were frozen as a result of his divorce proceedings, Yves Bouvier continued to invest in a multitude of schemes. On 31 December 2008 he lent €2 million to a man called Arnaud Mimran, a business partner of Samy Souied, nicknamed “the race-course boss”, who was murdered in September 2010 by two men on a scooter. Souied and Mimran are both regulars at Jean-Marc Peretti’s gambling club and responsible for what the French media later dubbed “the heist of the century” — a fraudulent carbon tax scheme in 2008 and 2009 worth €280 million. Their scam involved buying polluting rights via offshore companies and selling them on without paying VAT. During their trial in 2016, it emerged that Yves Bouvier was Mimran’s second largest creditor via his company MEI Invest and Jean-Marc Peretti, the largest being Mimran’s own mother whom he conned into lending him €400,000. Arnaud Mimran was sentenced to eight years in jail and fined €1 million.

A former Natural Le Coultre employee tells us: “Yves had so much money that it went to his head. He had a very short attention span. All you had to do was go to him and say you had a good idea, and he’d invest in your project.”

Many such ideas, both good and not so good, were suggested to him by his Parisian friends. One such friend was Marc Francelet, a former journalist who embarked on a second career in (often shady) business and has been charged several times with misuse of company assets and forgery, as well as being found guilty of insurance fraud. Documents we have seen reveal a €450,000 investment in a health-related project in Angola, via Marc Francelet.

The man himself goes into more detail when we meet him in Paris. “Yves and I have known each other for 30 years. He’s an extremely honest guy. I was the one who urged him to invest in Angola, and he put around 10 million into two projects related to health and food. But the price per barrel fell […] and some locals had their hands in the till. Yves is a true builder. He wanted to be the builder of Angola. He funded the projects and he believed in them.”

Those Angolan projects never materialized. But no matter, because Yves Bouvier had many others. He was at the head of a sprawling empire, controlling over 150 companies.

“I had more than 30 businesses, dozens of companies and hundreds of staff,” he told us. “I was represented in every sector of the art world: logistics, free ports, expert assessment, analysis, guarantees, public museums, art fairs, art galleries, art centres, restoration, art magazines and even a TV channel.”

“I’m a modern gypsy”

He had accrued a war chest approaching 200 million Swiss francs, just from the profits from selling paintings in 2008 alone.

During an interview at his law firm in Geneva, his lawyer Alexandre Camoletti told us, “Yves Bouvier is a genuine entrepreneur who keeps taking risks to keep moving forwards. He’s not really focused on one sector or the other. He follows his instincts. […] You want to launch a PR agency? Right, how much do you need? OK, this is my lawyer, work things out with him.”

He pulled the strings but was always in the background. Through his childhood friends and longstanding associates, Yves Bouvier became the unofficial owner of all kinds of companies, ranging from a store selling luxury trunks in Avenue Matignon in Paris to real-estate and energy projects in Switzerland. Drunk on success, he went further and further.

“Money intoxicated him. He got money and power mixed up,” says a Genevan lawyer who knew him well.

Yves Bouvier really does inspire metaphors. Another lawyer who has had dealings with him describes him as a hot-air balloon. “The money coming in was like hot air inflating his balloon. Then one day he took off, silently, and sailed higher and higher into the sky, with the wind behind him. He no longer had his feet on the ground. He had off-shored everything, especially himself.”

The man himself puts it differently. “I’m not married. I don’t have any children. I’m a modern gypsy, but instead of a caravan, I have my plane. If there’s business to be done tomorrow in New York, I hop on the plane. I was always available, always mobile.”

When the Swiss state changed the law on free ports in 2009 to increase transparency, Yves Bouvier moved his base to Singapore. He added new firms in Singapore and Hong Kong to his companies in the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands.

His first major project in Asia was a free port. He sent his friend Tony Reynard to negotiate with the Singaporean government, invested almost 100 million Swiss Francs and entrusted a Genevan architectural agency, 3BM3, with whom Yves Bouvier and the Geneva Freeport have worked many times before, with managing the building work. In 2010, the then president of the Swiss Confederation, Doris Leuthard, attended the inauguration of the hypermodern building in Singapore. Yves Bouvier’s people maintain that the decision to build a free port in Singapore was taken back in 2005 and hence had nothing to do with the 2009 Swiss legal reforms.

An oligarch’s lifestyle

Yves Bouvier struggled to keep an eye on all his businesses. His lawyer Alexandre Camoletti says, “He’s the king of multitasking. He can juggle three or four things at a time. He’ll be talking to you, answering the phone and sending an email.”

Like his offshore companies, he lives a virtual life. “I don’t think anyone could say he lived somewhere at that time, apart from in his plane. He was always travelling,” a former employee says.

But Yves Bouvier wasn’t satisfied with merely investing. He spent his money at an equally frenetic pace, like an oligarch, as if he were copying his number-one client. He owned a large number of vehicles: classic Ferraris which he would drive to Italy for a fine meal. Two boats on the lake: a luxurious Riva inboard moored in Geneva, and a four-engine (four!) Fountain outboard capable of speeds up to 80 mph on Lake Geneva — as well as a former French Navy frigate on the Corsican coast. Not to mention that famous Falcon 7X, a private jet costing over €50 million new (though his is second-hand), which belongs to one of his companies and can carry up to 14 people, with five beds.

There was his real-estate portfolio too. Yves Bouvier picked the best addresses for his Parisian Monopoly game, owning a total of six flats in three buildings on Avenue Matignon, one in Rue de la Pompe, one in Avenue Vion-Whitcomb and another in Rue Miromesnil. Most of these properties were registered in the name of his friend Yves Meyer (see Episode 2) who received bank transfers totalling €16.6 million for these acquisitions between July 2010 and February 2013. The form of property — property investment companies — made it possible to include other friends of Yves Bouvier such as Vincent Fischer and Frédéric Delliaux via their own PIC called Luvia.

Back in Switzerland, in March 2009, Yves Bouvier bought for 10 million Swiss francs at auction a grand house in Meinier, a village in the Genevan countryside, which had once belonged to the lawyer Didier Tornare, who was found guilty of financial malpractice. He had the house converted into a luxurious manor house.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. There were stables with a corridor for washing the horses, complete with an automatic dryer, a swimming pool, a tennis court, beehives . . .” someone who visited the house tells us, adding with a hint of mockery: “The work on the house cost him about 50 million. Yves thought he was Marie-Antoinette.”

Renovation work reportedly continued until 2014. Three years later, this residence was one of the properties seized as a result of Bouvier’s dispute with the Swiss tax administration, which has claimed 165 million Swiss francs from him.

The Bouvier method in three stages

Meanwhile, Dmitry Rybolovlev’s appetite for masterpieces was undiminished. Just the opposite, in fact. In June 2010 the oligarch finally managed to sell his majority stake in his Uralkali company for $5.3 billion, leaving him with a little loose change for shopping, and between October 2010 and October 2013, he spent almost a billion Swiss francs on 20 or so pieces of art. Yves Bouvier showed exceptional talent and an extraordinary eagerness to satisfy his needs.

“People say, ‘It’s simple. Yves Bouvier goes into a vault and sells a painting,’” he says now. “But none of those paintings came from my vaults. I worked day and night. I invested in every branch of the art world to be everywhere at once. I was constantly in Paris, discussing things with dealers. And at the racecourse! I worked all hours for years to build up a whole network.”

When he found a painting and his Russian client expressed an interest, he put into practice what might be called “the Bouvier method”. A three-stage plan. Step one: convince your client with bottomless pockets that you are doing your utmost to negotiate a good price, even if this means making up conversations with the sellers or imaginary rivals. Step two: buy (or pre-empt, as you wait for the client’s money) the painting yourself. Step three: sell it on at a considerable profit, occasionally calling in an expert to approve the price the oligarch is going to pay.

Various well-established experts received juicy commissions, including Simon Theobald and Guy Jennings in London, who were paid $3.5 million in 2008 according to documents we have seen, and Marc Restellini, a French historian and Modigliani specialist. The latter received €6.3 million in November 2013 via his French company Art Heritage SAS, now in liquidation, a sum that is most probably linked to Dmitry Rybolovlev’s purchase, a few weeks earlier, of Gauguin’s Otahi (alone) for 148 million Swiss francs — a transcation on which Yves Bouvier made a profit of 64.5 million. From 2011 on, Bouvier’s preferred expert was a certain Samuel Valette, vice-president of private sales at Sotheby’s in New York. In the space of three years he helped Yves Bouvier to sell 12 paintings for a combined profit of €314 million.

“I’m crying, he’s crying”: the sales patter

One of the legal cases currently ongoing, the action taken in New York by the Rybolovlev clan against Sotheby’s, in which Yves Bouvier is only a witness, has included the publication of various edifying exchanges between Samuel Valette and Yves Bouvier, and also between the latter and Mike Sazonov, the man who manages the Russian oligarch’s acquisitions. The Russian businessman’s Genevan lawyers also used these same documents as a basis for additional 400-page legal proceedings initiated in October 2019.

They reveal that on 9 December 2010 Yves Bouvier wrote to Mike Sazonov about acquiring El Greco’s painting The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian: “I’m negotiating hard.” An hour later, he noted: “It’s too tough with him,” adding, with admirable dramatic talent: “I’m crying, he’s crying. I’m telling him it’s out of the question. In short, it’s the game” before asking Sazanov if he can sign up for €40 million. In actual fact, he had already agreed a price with the seller, the Giraud Pissarro Ségalot gallery in New York: €17 million. Yves Bouvier was taking precisely zero financial risk here. He waited for Rybolovlev’s money to arrive and paid the gallery four days later on 20 December 2010. The very same day, he registered the Geneva Art Limited gallery in Hong Kong.

Today, Yves Bouvier is not remotely daunted when presented with these facts. “I made up some stories about some of the paintings, but that’s sales patter! Last week I bought a car. I pretended to phone my wife and discuss the price . . . Everyone does it. […] I couldn’t tell him orally because we didn’t speak the same language, so I did it by email.”

Helicopters that don’t get off the ground

Yves Bouvier fervently disputes accusations that he took absolutely no risk and waited for Rybolovlev’s money to pay for the paintings. He stresses that he had to honour every purchasing contract he signed and that it was possible that Dmitry Rybolovlev might change his mind about a painting, which meant that the risk was his, i.e. Bouvier’s.

“Are people accusing me of being a good manager?” he asks. “Of managing my stocks on a just-in-time basis? And with the best possible cash flow? When I buy a car from AMAG, how do I know if AMAG has a 60-day loan from its supplier? What’s wrong with that? Good for them. So, because we’re talking about works of art, you’re not allowed to use classic commercial practices anymore? No one would have cared less if I’d been buying and selling mobile phones!”

Meanwhile, his investments enjoyed the same exponential growth as his sales of paintings. In June 2011 his lawyer Alexandre Camoletti convinced him to invest several million in two companies called Swiss Technologies and Smartcopter which were developing new models of light helicopter. They never get off the ground. According to Yves Bouvier this was because his accounts had “run dry” after his conflict with Dmitry Rybolovlev began, which prevented him from investing more. A former employee comments on this with a wry smile: “I never saw a business that made Yves any money.”

Never mind, though, because money continued to pour into Yves Bouvier’s pockets. A few weeks earlier in April 2011, with Sotheby’s assistance, he had sold three works to Rybolovlev, one after the other over the course of a fortnight — two sculptures by Rodin and Maillol, and a Picasso, for a combined total of 150 million Swiss francs and at a profit of 50 million.

Samuel Valette, a senior figure at Sotheby’s auction house, founded in 1744 and bought up in 2019 by the French-Portuguese-Israeli businessman Patrick Drahi for $3.7 billion, was becoming increasingly involved. On 11 September 2012 Yves Bouvier and the Sotheby’s man signed a €126 million sales contract for Gustav Klimt’s Wasserschlangen II. The Genevan wrote to Mike Sazonov that same day: “They’re sticking at 180 and are at breaking point . . . I think they want 190, but I’m going to have to wring them to get 185. What should I do?”

Alarm bells in Vienna over the price of a Klimt

Having received the Russian’s go-ahead, Yves Bouvier claimed to have concluded a deal at $183.3 million. Due to problems obtaining an export licence from the Austrian government, the sale was only finalized a year later, in July 2013. It was a risky method.

Two months later, the real price was leaked in an Austrian newspaper. Following a tipoff from Samuel Valette, Yves Bouvier seized the initiative and immediately forwarded the article to Mike Sazonov, with an assurance that the details were false. He offered to produce proof of payment from Sotheby’s to back up his account. The bluff worked, and the blaze was extinguished. On 24 October Samuel Valette did indeed send the Genevan businessman a pro forma document entitled “For the attention of secret client no. 134”. It values the work at 180 million Swiss francs and contains a list of previous transactions, omitting the one Samuel Valette himself negotiated two months earlier.

Thanks to his dutiful obligé at Sotheby’s, Yves Bouvier pocketed a profit of over $50 million for the Klimt too. Swindling Dmitry Rybolovlev like this also proved a nice little earner for Sotheby’s, and Yves Bouvier represented a staggering 20 per cent of the auction house’s turnover in 2011, 2012 and 2013 — $569 million. It’s their largest private client.

The trap in Cyprus

Given the astronomical margins he practised, Yves Bouvier was not loth to do the occasional favour for Dmitry Rybolovlev, such as, for example, playing his part in a trap the oligarch set for his wife, who was still suing him for half his fortune. The Rybolovlev clan’s strategy was to drain Elena’s assets and force her to agree a deal, but it also involved putting her in a spot where she would be more inclined to sign a divorce settlement — a Cypriot jail, for example. So, who might have come up with this brilliant plan? Both Yves Bouvier and the Rybolovlev camp deny being the brains behind it.

Be that as it may. The fact remains that in December 2013 the law firm Andreas Neocleous & Co LLC, which was managing Dmitry Rybolovlev’s family trusts, reported Dmitry’s soon-to-be ex-wife to the Cypriot police. The Russian was a celebrity on the island. He had been a major shareholder in the Bank of Cyprus since 2010 and occasionally invited President Nicos Anastasiadis to his house in Nicosia. A few weeks later, Yves Bouvier sprang into action by ringing Elena to announce that he had some “good news”. Through his contacts he has located a warehouse in Cyprus where Dmitry has reportedly hidden a large part of his collection; she should go and take a look. The Genevan offered her the use of his private jet. When Elena hesitantly asked whether her presence was really necessary, the Genevan doubled down, saying he wouldn’t be able to get into the warehouse with her.

In a later written statement to Marc Bonnant, Elena’s lawyer, Yves Bouvier even confesses the following: “In order to make what I was meant to say to Elena sound plausible and justify her trip, it was agreed that some copies of a few paintings from the Rybo collection should be shipped to Cyprus. I took care of the shipping.”

The plane took off from Geneva on the morning of 24 February 2014. No sooner had it landed in Nicosia than the Cypriot police arrested Elena Rybolovleva in the VIP lounge on her husband’s allegations that she had stolen a diamond-set pink-gold ring worth €25 million.

Incriminating text messages

His mission accomplished, Yves Bouvier slipped away. Little can he have imagined that he would be arrested in similar circumstances a year later in Monaco. At the time, though, Tetiana Bersheda was constantly updated about Mrs Rybolovlev’s arrest in Cyprus, her movements and her statements to the police. A young lawyer, Bersheda is originally from Ukraine. The “potash czar” first noticed her at a Geneva notary’s office in 2009 when she was 25 years old and appointed her to oversee the majority of his legal affairs. When Tetiana Bersheda’s phone was later seized, some of the text messages stored in it were highly incriminating. She was communicating frenziedly with her local representative, Panayiotis Neocleous (who was sentenced to two years in jail in 2017 for bribing a deputy public prosecutor in a different case). One text was written as if she were directing the operation: “Hi Panayiotis. Don’t forget to ask the police to confiscate her Swiss residency permit. Call me whenever you want. Thanks.”

Things didn’t work out well for the Rybolovlev clan, though. Elena’s lawyer in Geneva soon dug up an invoice and an insurance declaration in her name for the ring, proving that she had been given the ring for her birthday. By evening, Elena was free. Her lawyers were livid when they

discovered that the arrest warrant was signed on a Sunday, which they saw as evidence that the Cypriot judicial system had been paid off.

Elena claimed her revenge on 13 May 2014. The courts in Geneva ruled in her favour, ordering Dmitry Rybolovlev to pay her 4 billion Swiss francs. It was the most expensive divorce in history. The oligarch would not admit defeat, however, and appealed against the verdict. But the fates seemed to be conspiring against him: he was diagnosed with prostate cancer soon afterwards.

More importantly, though: in the months that follow, in the autumn of 2014, doubts finally began to torment him. Had his friend Yves Bouvier, the man who had repeatedly invited him to special occasions and family celebrations, been taking shameless advantage of him? A final masterpiece, the previously cited Rothko №6, was in play. The conflict that erupted around this transaction and then spreads to all previous purchases hit through the art world like a bomb, and triggered trials in Singapore, Monaco, Paris, Geneva and New York involving armies of lawyers and detectives.