Illustration: Anne-Gaelle Amiot for Heidi.news
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War is declared in Monaco

On 25 February 2015 Yves Bouvier was hoping to persuade Dmitry Rybolovlev to settle the outstanding payment for a Rothko masterpiece that could be the jewel in his art collection, “the most beautiful in the world”. However, the Russian had recently discovered that the Genevan had significantly marked up the price of 37 works of art he had sold him since 2003. He therefore filed a complaint with the police, and Yves Bouvier was arrested. That could have been the end of the story, but in fact it was just the beginning of another one, as it sparked all-out war between the two men. Five years later, Yves Bouvier won a battle in Monaco, where the trial was dropped because Dmitry Rybolovlev had allegedly received “preferential treatment” from the state prosecutor. But that isn’t the end of the matter either.

He came looking for €36 million euros. He found prison.

On that cold clear February morning in 2015, Yves Bouvier boards his Falcon 7X private jet at Geneva airport for what he expects to be a routine business trip. What he cannot possibly foresee is that a meeting in the foyer of a chic building in Monaco, 335 miles away, will change his life. Flying south, the Genevan businessman re-reads a document headed “Rothko – How to proceed” that he has revised four times in the past few days. He knows he’s in for some tense negotiations. He has sold an extraordinary painting, Mark Rothko’s No. 6 (Violet, Green, & Red), to his number-one client, the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, for €140 million, but he cannot get him to pay the balance.

The two men have been doing business for the past 13 years. Overall, the Genevan has sold the Russian oligarch 31 paintings and seven sculptures by Modern masters for a total sum of €2 billion. Recently, however, there has been a slight pall over their relationship, which used to be very close without necessarily qualifying as a friendship. The collector had had his first suspicions about the prices of the paintings the previous autumn and revealed them to his dealer during a party at the Monaco Yacht Club.

The fact of the matter is that this 25 February meeting comes at a moment when the fates of the two men are on diverging paths.

Unusually fragile

Although Dmitry Rybolovlev, now a Monaco resident and the boss of AS Monaco football club after having spent 10 years or so in Geneva, is worth an estimated 9 billion Swiss francs, he is in an unusually fragile position. Having recovered from prostate cancer the previous summer, he is awaiting the results of his appeal against a Genevan court judgement ordering him to pay 4 billion francs to his ex-wife. For the first time, he has told Yves Bouvier that he has cash problems, which have forced him to divest of a Modigliani sculpture valued at €60 million and a Toulouse-Lautrec painting worth €14 million to be able to finish paying for the Rothko canvas, for which he has already made a down payment of €20 million. The Genevan has offered to invest €10 million of his own in the painting, leaving 36 million, which is his reason for travelling to Monaco.

Yves Bouvier, on the other hand, is on a roll. He’s about to close out a fantastic deal for this Rothko, having acquired it for $80 million (€65 million at the time). As of February 2015, the cumulative profit on his sales to Dmitry Rybolovlev is almost 1 billion Swiss francs according to the Russian’s lawyers (although Yves Bouvier disputes this claim). This bonanza has made him one of the world’s leading art dealers, with substantial investments on four continents and an array of businesses employing over 500 people. He is the largest tenant of the Geneva Freeport, owns Singapore Freeport, and has recently opened a similar business in Luxembourg, which also belongs to him. The press has already dubbed him the “freeport king”, but he’s on his way to becoming the emperor, with franchises based on his model under negotiation in Dubai, Doha, Mauritius, Abu Dhabi, Macao, Seoul and Taipei.

A chauffeur awaits him at Nice airport. Described by all as a charming and self-confident man, Yves Bouvier is sure of his strategy. In order to call in the outstanding payment on his 38th sale, he plans to pretend that supposedly impatient sellers (the Rothko is, in fact, already his) are in league with the Genevan lawyer Marc Bonnant — a thorn in Dmitry Rybolovlev’s side, since the attorney is defending the oligarch’s wife in their divorce proceedings. Bouvier’s wager is that the mere mention of Bonnant’s name will knock Rybolovlev off his stride.

The only snag is that they never meet. Their appointment is at 10 a.m. at 17 Avenue d’Ostende, in the La Belle Époque building whose ground floor is occupied by two banks, HSBC and BNP Paribas. The Russian billionaire owns a €240-million fourth-floor penthouse overlooking the Monaco harbour master’s office that used to belong to the late Swiss banker Edmond Safra (who suffocated to death in a fire there in 1999).

Concealed handcuffs

Yves Bouvier arrives early and strolls up and down the Marina, where some of the world’s most luxurious yachts are moored. At 10 o’clock on the dot he enters the lobby. He spots eight powerfully built black-suited men, mistaking them for his client’s bodyguards, and walks towards them. An instant later, one of the men steps forward and produces a police badge. The others surround the Genevan and handcuff him. As they head outside to a police car that has pulled up, a scarf is draped over the handcuffs to avoid creating a stir among potential bystanders. A few minutes later, Yves Bouvier finds himself in a police custody cell 800 yards away at 9 Rue Suffren Reymond.

“My first reaction was that I was being arrested for an offence committed by Mr Rybolovlev related to Russia,” Bouvier says later. “I was so convinced I was innocent that it took me five minutes to say yes when they asked me if I wished to see a lawyer.” He has never met the court-appointed lawyer whose name the police officers give him — Charles Lecuyer, a 30-year-old Monegasque go-getter.

Three hours pass before questioning commences. Those three hours give Yves Bouvier the time to prepare his version of events and call his lawyer in Geneva, Alexandre Camoletti. When he gets off the phone, Camoletti sounds the alarm bell throughout Bouvier’s empire. In Geneva, Mario Brero, a detective, launches one of the biggest operations of his career. The Singaporean subsidiary of the Swiss company PSiDEO, whose headquarters are in the Genevan suburb of Plan-les-Ouates, remotely deletes the contents of their client’s BlackBerry including all his emails. The charges read out to Yves Bouvier leave him in no doubt that he is under investigation for fraud, for being an accessory to fraud and for money-laundering at the expense of Dmitry Rybolovlev’s three companies.

What first?

War has broken out, and it will affect every aspect of Yves Bouvier’s life. “He tried to destroy me,” he now says of the Russian oligarch.

The Genevan doesn’t know what to do first, given that he owns, or used to own in his pomp, over one hundred offshore companies. This isn’t counting a helicopter firm in Geneva, interests in Angola (alongside some shady French characters), a leatherware store on Avenue Matignon in Paris, a racehorse stables named Quinoa, a precious metal trading company in Singapore, investments in the movie and music industries and a TV channel specializing in fine art, as well as stakes in galleries and, most importantly, in freight forwarding companies that give him unrivalled knowledge of the movements and prices of valuable items. This is by no means an exhaustive list; even his friends have lost track of all his business interests. “Yves Bouvier provides few details and compartmentalizes his dealings to an extreme degree,” the detective Mario Brero later tells the judges at a hearing.

Bouvier’s Monesgasque lawyer finally shows up at 1.13 p.m. on 25 February 2015, and by now a Parisian attorney is on his way south. Questioning may commence. When the police officers ask him to state his profession, Yves Bouvier says, “Businessman” and when they enquire about the basis for his reputation in the art world, he declares, “My information network. I think my trump card in this job is having excellent information about the works, the sellers, and so forth.”

Positioning himself as an art dealer, he adds: “Every buyer is a speculator as well. There is often ego involved. An exceptional item is worth what the buyer thinks it’s worth.” Yves Bouvier does not seem remotely rattled by the questioning, even when the police broach the delicate issue of the arguments he used to seal his sales deals. “I should spell out that I make a business case to justify the selling price. I highlight my role.” He emphasizes that he is a seller, having owned every single painting he sold to Rybolovlev (even if only briefly) before going on to defend his actions: “In my estimation, I always proposed a fair price that reflected the item’s value.”

Five years later

Almost five years later, on 12 December 2019, the Monaco courts are deceptively peaceful. The sun bathes the building’s porous grey tuff walls in a faint glow, but it can shine no light on five years of ruthless warring between the Russian billionaire and the Genevan businessman, assisted by their regiments of lawyers and detectives.

It’s 11.30 a.m., and the cathedral square is practically deserted despite Monaco being the most densely populated place on the planet, with 68,000 people per square mile, including millionaires attracted from all over the world by the principality’s tax regime. The buildings are piled on top of one another so that the city resembles a 3D architectural model. Though crammed into steep-sided creeks and propped up by laboriously assembled retaining walls, they are nevertheless an intrinsic part of what is seen as the charm of the Riviera. Beside the door is a bronze plaque in English and Chinese stating that no visitors are allowed. From the outside, all one sees are fine diamond-shaped stained-glass windows through which light falls on Monaco’s coat of arms.

Court clerks come and go, laden with piles of documents, as if this were just another day. However, the judges are about to deliver one of the most important decisions in Monaco’s legal history. The matter in question is this: did the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev influence the Monaco courts in the case he brought against his former art dealer, the Genevan Yves Bouvier?

Having ushered away a Chinese tourist, a clerk finally agrees to talk to us. “Given the fuss over this case, I can guarantee you won’t get a comment,” he says in an off-the-record tone of voice, adding, “That Mercedes over there belongs to Mr Linotte, the presiding judge.”

A breathtaking confession

The judge finally emerges from the courts and makes for his car. “I understand that this affair is of interest in Switzerland, but fortunately I have nothing to do with it,” he says before slamming the door and driving away along Rue de l’Église. The affair is indeed shaping up to be a full-blown scandal. Ten officials have been accused of influence-peddling, and the justice minister, Philippe Narmino, has been removed from his position.

The judges’ decision is not announced in court but in a press release that is immediately published by the Tribune de Genève. It leaves everyone thunderstruck. The Bouvier case is overturned in Monaco. The Principality’s courts have pronounced their sentence on their own actions. It pulls no punches: they have come to the conclusion that their own judges and officials did not treat the two defendants impartially. “All the investigations have been conducted in a biased and unfair manner, and the accused have been unable retrospectively to set right the serious anomalies that have permanently compromised the balance of the rights of the two parties.” The judgment further reads: “Mr Dmitry Rybolovlev has benefited from preferential treatment as well as continual special access to the public prosecutor and investigators.” The Russian oligarch’s lawyers have appealed.

In Geneva, Yves Bouvier is triumphant. “I am immensely relieved after five years of abuse of process,” he tells the Swiss broadcasting corporation RTS. “My victory over Mr Rybolovlev’s billions is a victory for justice. […] It has destroyed my transport business, it has destroyed my relationship with my parents, it has destroyed my other activities as an art dealer. The damage has been huge. […] It is not over yet, and I’ll be ready and waiting to defend myself against him in Geneva.”

Following the spectacular turn of events on 12 December 2019 in Monaco, and with legal proceedings still ongoing in Geneva, Singapore and New York, Heidi.news has carried out its own exclusive investigation over the past four months. This has included meeting some 20 witnesses in order to understand what happened during the five years of proceedings as well as the nature of the Russian and the Genevan’s13-year business relationship. A relationship involving billions and multiple betrayals, debauchery, backstabbing and low blows.

Assisted by Vincent Magnenat

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You can buy the full French printed version of this exploration here.