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Secrets of art world’s biggest loser: How oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev’s $1bn fraud claim ended in ruin

secrets-of-art-world’s-biggest-loser:-how-oligarch-dmitry-rybolovlev’s-$1bn-fraud-claim-ended-in-ruin
Secrets of art world’s biggest loser: How oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev’s $1bn fraud claim ended in ruin

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. 

Albert II, Prince of Monaco, Dmitry Rybolovlev, and Nicolas Sarkozy in suits watching PSG vs AS Monaco match at Parc des Princes in Paris, France in 2017.

Rybolovlev, center, between Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, and Prince Albert of Monaco, in 2017. Getty Images

A photo of the train station in Perm, Russia.

The railway station in Perm, Russia, a city 900 miles east of Russia in the Ural Mountains where Rybolovlev grew up. A.Savin/ Wikipedia/ FAL

A photo of Monaco.

The principality of Monaco lies between France and Italy. Smaller than New York’s Central Park it is dominated by “The Rock,” whose pink palace is home to the Grimaldi ruling family. Shutterstock

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.

The Louis II stadium in Monaco where Rybolovlev’s team, Monaco AS plays. AFP via Getty Images

A photo of Dmitry Rybolovlev's $250 million superyacht, Anna.

Rybolovlev’s $250 million yacht, Anna. ZUMAPRESS.com

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.

Elena Rybolovlev, wife of Dmitry Rybolovlev, standing in front of a microphone.

Rybolovlev and his wife of 23 years, Elena, whom he met in medical school, had a messy divorce in 2008.

Donald Trump's former oceanfront mansion, L'Amitie, in Palm Beach, Florida.

In 2008, Dmitry Rybolovlev bought Maison de l’Amitie, which has since been torn down, for a eye-popping $95 million from Donald Trump. Many felt he vastly overpaid for the property and were suspicious as to why. ZUMAPRESS.com

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.

Dmitry Rybolovlev and Ekaterina Rybolovlev attend AS Monaco FC v Arsenal FC UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match, applauding.

Rybolovlev and his daughter, Ekaterina, who bought an $88 million apartment on Central Park West as well as the island of Skorpios in Greece with money from a trust set up by her father. Getty Images

A aerial photo of the Greek island of Skorpios.

The Greek island of Skorpios, once owned by Aristotle Onassis, was bought by Rybolovlev’s daughter Ekaterina with her father’s money in 2013. aerial-drone – stock.adobe.com

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.

A photo of a sinkhole in the Russian town of Bereniki.

A sinkhole in the old mining town of Berezniki , Russia at the site of the first potash plant where Rybolovlev’s potash extraction caused giant sinkholes. Valery Staricov/ CC

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.

A photo of Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier sitting down with his hands entwined.

Rybolovlev began waging legal war in 2015 against the powerful art broker, Yves Bouvier of Switzerland, but Bouvier was never found guilty of any crime. Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.

a portrait painting by Leonardo da Vinci of Jesus Christ, titled

“Salvator Mundi,” an ethereal portrait of Jesus Christ which dates to about 1500 and is now believed to be by Leonardo da Vinci, was at the center of the art fraud trial last month in NYC where Rybolovlev accused Sotheby’s of conspiring with art dealer Yves Bouvier to defraud him. REUTERS

A photo of

“Tête” by Amadeo Modigliani was one of four artworks that Rybolovlev claimed he was defrauded over during the recent trial with Sotheby’s.

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.”

A photo of Rene Magritte's

Rene Magritte’s “La Domaine d’Arnheim,” one of the four artworks at the center of the recent Sotheby alleged art fraud trial.

A photo of Gustav Klimt's

Gustav Klimt’s “Watersnakes,” one of the four artworks at stake in Rybolovlev’s trial against Sotheby’s. Getty Images

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.

A photo of the Airbus A319CJ owned by Dmitry Rybolovlev.

The Airbus A319CJ owned by Dmitry Rybolovlev. Alamy Stock Photo

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.

A photo of auctioneers at Sotheby's auction house.

A federal jury late last month ruled in favor of the Manhattan-based Sotheby’s at a trial at which Rybolovlev accused the auction house of defrauding him out of tens of millions of dollars. AFP via Getty Images

“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.

Dmitry Rybolovlev in suit and tie standing in the stands of Stade Louis II before the match between AS Monaco and Atletico Madrid.

Dmitry Rybolovlev started out in a grim mountain town 900 miles outside Moscow and made billions in fertilizer. Now he has lost a landmark art case after years of bitter litigation. REUTERS

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.”

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