It’s a long way from Perm, Russia — a grim town in the Ural mountains 900 miles east of Moscow once known as the “Gateway to the Gulag” and home to the Soviet Union’s most terrifying labor camp for political prisoners — to Monte Carlo.
In 1987, when Perm 36 camp closed, Dmitry Rybolovlev was a 22-year-old medical student.
Four years later the Soviet Union collapsed and Rybolovlev dumped his career as a cardiologist to corner the potassium fertilizer business in a newly-privatized Russia.
It was a winning move: in 2010 he sold his stake in Uralkali for $6.5 billion.
And he swapped Perm for one of Monaco’s most prestigious addresses, the two-story, $300 million penthouse in the Belle Époque mansion, with views of his friend Prince Albert’s pink palace high in the distance across the harbor.
Until now, Rybovlovev, 57, has been used to winning.
He owns Monaco’s soccer club, its stadium nestled in the heart of the richest square mile in the world, a portfolio of multi-million dollar properties, businesses spanning the planet, a private Boeing 737 and a $250 million yacht, the Anna.
He watches soccer with Monaco’s embattled Prince Albert, who’s been fighting allegations of corruption, and hobnobs with other fans such as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
And his daughter, Ekaterina, now 35, who’s married to Uruguayan businessman and politician Juan Sartori, purchased an apartment at 15 Central Park West with $88 million of her father’s money in 2011.
Two years later Ekaterina also bought the fabled Greek island of Skorpios, which was once owned by Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, Jackie Kennedy’s second husband.
Even his split from Elena, his wife of 23 years in 2008 was called the “divorce of the century.”
Elena, who met Rybolovlev in medical school, accused him of trying to hide his wealth from her by buying up mansions from Hawaii to Greece to Central Park West.
The Rybolovlevs’ life together was detailed in Elena’s 2008 bombshell divorce filing, alleging he cheated on her constantly with women young enough to be his daughters — whom he shared with his friends. Her husband claimed she was aware of his sex life before the divorce.
One, she revealed was the 62,000 sq-ft. Maison de l’Amitie in Palm Beach, which he bought during the depths of the 2008 recession from Donald Trump — more than double what Trump had paid for it. His wife said he did no due diligence before the purchase.
(Trump’s original purchase of the house is said to have caused him to fall out with Jeffrey Epstein.)
In papers filed in Geneva and Palm Beach, Fla., Elena alleged Ekaterina was manipulated by her father and bribed with lavish gifts to deceive her mother — and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown because of the familial stress.
Rybolovlev, in turn, had Elena arrested in Cyprus where he coincidentally owns a bank, saying she had stolen a $28 million ring.
She later proved he had given it to her and walked away with about $3.5 billion in the divorce.
Rybolovlev didn’t amass his money and power quietly.
As the boss of Uralkali, Rybolovlev was blamed for turning Berezniki, an old mining town in the Urals where his potash was extracted from 1500 feet underground, into what The New York Times called a city “always on watch against being sucked into the earth” because of sinkholes.
In 1996, after decamping to Switzerland to avoid the violent gangsterism taking over Russia, he was arrested on charges of plotting the murder of a rival businessman and served almost a year in prison before being acquitted.
But he had always been someone accustomed to winning — until he tangled with the world of art.
Now he has came up a loser, more than once, for his role in a series of international lawsuits alleging fraud.
The cases centered in Monaco with tentacles reaching from Singapore to Switzerland and finally to Manhattan.
They started in 2015 Rybolovlev when he went on the warpath in Monaco against the multi-millionaire Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, accusing him of overcharging for masterpieces bought from Sotheby’s.
The allegations were apparently simple: Rybolovlev claimed he thought Bouvier was acting as a go-between to buy the artworks — but instead Bouvier was buying them himself then flipping them to Rybolovlev at an inflated price, making much more money than the commission Rybolovlev thought he was paying.
But the allegations became a sprawling saga, nicknamed the “Bouvier Affair.”
Bouvier was arrested early on in connection with the case, then released. Rybolovlev himself was questioned at the time about trying to buy off officials in order to nail Bouvier.
A Monaco judge ultimately dismissed the case, saying it had been seriously compromised by troubling “links” discovered between investigators and the lawyer representing Rybolovlev.
It ended up “almost bringing down half the principality,” said one lawyer who’s practiced in Monaco and Italy for decades.
“You couldn’t underestimate the scope of this thing. It brought back all those old charges of Monaco being corrupt and dirty.”
Other litigation followed around the world and in January, it reached its denouement: a federal court in Manhattan.
There, Rybolovlev accused Sotheby’s of conspiring with Bouvier to trick him into paying inflated prices for four works including “Salvator Mundi,” a depiction of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and dubbed “the Lost Leonardo.”
He sued for the loss of $380 million, claiming that in all he had paid an extra $1 billion for 38 separate pieces of art over 12 years.
According to court papers, Bouvier bought the da Vinci for $83 million in 2013 and sold it the next day to Rybolovlev for $127.5 million.
Rybolovlev and his lawyers apparently never made a simple phone call to Sotheby’s to verify how much Bouvier paid the sales house for the paintings before re-selling them to him..
And he also sued over three other artworks: Amedeo Modigliani’s carved stone sculpture “Tête”; “Le domaine d’Arnheim” by René Magritte; and Gustav Klimt’s “Wasserschlangen II,” alleging Sotheby’s let him be ripped off by Bouvier for them too.
Sotheby’s, which is privately held, had long maintained that it had no knowledge that Bouvier might have lied, and that it was not liable for his dealings with Rybolovlev.
“The amount of chutzpah Bouvier had was incredible,” a source familiar with the case told The Post. “He pulled one off on Rybolovlev. He’s not exactly a babe in the woods. It was right out of a movie.”
“Bouvier outsmarted him,” a longtime lawyer in Monaco told The Post. “He might have been the only one to do that in Dmitry’s life.”
Rybolovlev may have thought he was winning again in Manhattan when his lawyers persuaded the judge that the jury should not hear him called an “oligarch,” because it would prejudice jurors against him.
Despite his Russian billions, the 57-year-old has not been sanctioned by the United States and other governments in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — to the disgust of activists.
“He’s been active in the West and some of his actions seem to be helpful both for his own businesses and the soft power of the Kremlin,” Ilya Zaslavskiy, a Russian-born US citizen and anti-corruption activist who included Rybolovlev in a report about which Russians should be sanctioned by the West, told The Post.
But when the jury returned its verdict on the man they did not know was an oligarch, it was stunning: they ruled against Rybolovlev and in favor of Sotheby’s, ending years of litigation.
(He and Bouvier had settled in December 2023, just before the New York trial, with Bouvier claiming that it showed he had done nothing wrong. A source told The Art Newspaper a Geneva prosecutor had told the two to settle after deciding there was no criminal case to answer for Rybolovlev.)
The sting of defeat was no doubt lessened by the fact that Rybolovlev went on to sell “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s in 2017 for $450.3 million, a record price for an artwork at auction, apparently to Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Rybolovlev’s Manhattan-based lawyer for the trial, Dan Kornstein, told The Post only that “as the dust clears from the jury verdict, it becomes more clear than ever that transparency was needed in the shadowy art market and that the analyses and commentaries since then have reflected that awareness.”
Marcus Asner, of the law firm Arnold & Porter, who represented Sotheby’s at the trial, had a different take.
“We were thrilled by the verdict which reaffirmed what we knew since the beginning which was that Sotheby’s played no role in any fraud or attempted fraud against Rybolovlev or anyone else,” Asner told The Post. “The person who didn’t want it to be transparent was Dmitry Rybolovlev.”