Russian Billionaire’s Aide Testifies That Sotheby’s Helped Defraud Him


On Tuesday, the court was shown contracts between Rybolovlev’s company and companies owned by Bouvier for four initial art purchases. Bouvier has put forward the sales contracts as proof that he was openly operating as a dealer who owned the art himself.

But Sazanov testified that he had not recognized the names of the different companies, which were located in various places including the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong, and that he had no idea they were affiliated with Bouvier. He believed instead, at the time, that they represented other third party owners of the art, he said.

Sazanov said in later sales facilitated by Bouvier such contracts were dispensed with, as Bouvier became closer friends with Rybolovlev and insisted that formal contracts slowed them down in the chase for trophy art. As a result, the precise nature of their relationship — buyer and seller or buyer and agent — was never written down. Bouvier would send invoices for artworks from his own company and Sazonov would pay them. But Sazanov said he assumed all the money was being paid to another owner and Bouvier was getting no mark up. That Bouvier was earning the commission only added to the misunderstanding, he said.

Sotheby’s has said that Rybolovlev, a savvy businessman with significant assets, acted unreasonably by relying on what Bouvier was telling him without putting the terms of their relationship in writing or asking for any documents as proof of the prices Bouvier said he was paying to acquire the art for him.

Rybolovlev had no basis “to accuse Sam Valette, or anyone else at Sotheby’s, of Bouvier’s misconduct,” the Sotheby’s lawyer, Shudofsky, said on Monday.

On Tuesday, Sazanov described how Bouvier had forwarded notes he had received from Valette about the works Rybolovlev was buying. In the notes, the Sotheby’s expert praised the quality of artworks or discussed the pricing, which Sazonov said made him feel comfortable in going ahead with the deals. He was reassured, he said, about “the importance and the quality of the painting that justified a very high price.”

The trial is providing a rare window into the often secretive inner workings of the art trade. Rybolovlev has attended the proceedings this week, sitting beside his attorneys while he listened through a translator. His lawyers have said he will testify at the trial, which is expected to last about six weeks.

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