Book Review: “The Bouvier Affair: A True Story” (2019)
November 30, 2020
By Jacqueline Crispino.
“Beauty will save the world” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Idiot”
Is there a saving grace in the Bouvier Affair? Or is it nothing but scandals and drama? The ownership saga of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is a serious and rather unattractive spectacle. As with many spectacles, this one has only gained media attention, notoriety, and financial value since its discovery in 2005. Many articles and books have been written about it, including the April 2019 article in the New York Magazine and Alexandra Bregman’s new book, The Bouvier Affair. Bregman’s book, which reads like an exposé on Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, one major buyer and seller of the artwork, includes not only Dmitry Rybolovlev’s art dealings and relations with the allegedly fraudulent art dealer Yves Bouvier, but also his personal affairs with Russian models and his lifestyle in Geneva, Monaco, and Cyprus. Each chapter reads with a journalistic flair, with each of them taking on sometimes completely different topics related to the art world, different artists, or players in Rybolovlev’s and Bouvier’s social networks. Ultimately, given that the main discussion is about Rybolovlev, one may wonder why Bregman chose to call the book The Bouvier Affair, after the 2016 New Yorker Article, rather than The Rybolovlev Affair or The Salvator Mundi Affair.
While Bregman touches on the intersection of art and law, the story also delves into an account of the art world’s elite. Chapters two through four, for example, entitled “A Change of Heart,” “The Dark One,” and “Auction,” detail the sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi from its 2005 discovery to the 2017 record-smashing sale of the work through Christie’s in New York. Bregman provides an inside view of the 2017 auction with quotes from the auctioneer and the reactions of the audience (the graceful and the ugly). In later chapters, the book details Rybolovlev’s childhood, his time in prison, his divorce and affairs, his relationship with high society in Geneva and Monaco, and finally opines on the collector’s reasons for acquiring artworks. One should note, however, that Bregman does not spend much time on the authenticity debate regarding the Salvator Mundi, which involved claims that the Leonardo is a fake and garnered media attention. She states that, “To the untrained eye, many felt it was not a da Vinci at all,” but that “The experts never doubted it was real.” The author of The Invention of the Salvator Mundi, Matthew Shaer, agrees that “some of the best scholars in the world had determined that the Salvator Mundi was a genuine Leonardo.”
The title of Bregman’s book, The Bouvier Affair, refers to Yves Bouvier, the Swiss art dealer, who bought and sold paintings to Rybolovlev. Bouvier entered the art world as a teenager with no formal training. Instead, he learned about art from experience. He took over his father’s shipping business and re-focused it on shipping art. He eventually expanded his company into buying and selling art to galleries and investors. More specifically, however, the title refers to the art world scandal in which Rybolovlev discovered that Bouvier had been stealing from it. Their business relationship began when Bouvier and Rybolovlev met in Geneva in 2002 after Tania Rappo, a friend of the Rybolovlevs’, introduced them so that Bouvier could help Rybolovlev buy artworks. It later came out, however, that Bouvier promised to give Rappo a “kickback” for all of the deals he made with Rybolovlev since she had introduced them. Rybolovlev also discovered that Bouvier had been taking a larger commission from his sales than the agreed-upon commission of two percent. While Rybolovlev thought he had paid $127.5 million for the Salvatore Mundi in May 2013, Bouvier had actually only paid a reported $80 million for it at the auction at Sotheby’s. Bouvier made $47.5 million off of the sale. Bouvier continued to increase the price of paintings, sometimes raising the cost by as much as 70%. Over the period of their partnership, which lasted until 2015, Bouvier had taken a total of one billion dollars from Rybolovlev.
Rybolovlev only realized that he had ove
rpaid for the Salvator Mundi when he read Scott Reyburn’s 2014 New York Times article which stated that the painting had sold for a price between seventy-five and eigh
ty million dollars. Subsequently, both Bouvier and Rappo were arrested in Monaco and charged with money laundering in February of 2015. Bouvier was also charged with fraud. The lawsuit began in January 2015 in Monaco when Rybolovlev’s family trust filed a criminal suit against Bouvier. At one point, Rybolovlev had filed lawsuits in five jurisdictions around the world including Singapore, Switzerland, France, Monaco, and the United States. The suit in Singapore, however, was dismissed in 2017 for lack of jurisdiction, or connection with that location’s courts. As of 2019, lawsuits in Switzerland, France, Monaco, and the U.S. are still ongoing. Rybolovlev even filed a lawsuit against Sotheby’s in 2018 claiming that they “‘materially assisted in the largest art fraud in history.’” Reportedly, he is seeking $380 million in damages, given that the auction house had been involved in almost a third of his sales from Bouvier. In fact, there are documents that show that Sotheby’s increased their valuations after Bouvier bought them so that they matched the price Rybolovlev paid once Bouvier flipped it to him. The legal discovery in the case against Sotheby’s began in August 2019 and comes after a New York Southern Circuit Court judge denied Sotheby’s motion to dismiss evidence and remove the case from New York. When will the lawsuits end? Certainly not in the near future.
Yet, as with all disputes, there are different sides to each story. In an interview with the author, when asked to explain her understanding of the case, Bouvier contends, “there was no commission agreement, no contract, and therefore, the claims against him are completely unfounded, whereas Rybolovlev feels that the money Bouvier took on the back end of each sale constitutes fraud.” Bregman ultimately concludes that it is “up to the reader to decide which side they think is right.” While the cases are pending, the attorneys will have to present evidence and mount their case, and the judges, including U.S. District Court judge Jesse M. Furman, will decide what they think amounts to justice.
When asked about whether she needed assistance to understand the legal aspects of the case, Bregman explained how a Geneva-based lawyer, a Monaco-based lawyer, and five other “individuals involved in litigation” illuminated her understanding of trust law, an integral area of law for the field of art. Bregman told the Center for Art Law that Rybolovlev, for example, “used [trust law] to his great advantage during his acquisition of masterpieces.” While Bregman does not mention these laws in her book, as she is not a lawyer, she provides enough details about Rybolovlev’s life that it is easy to tell why the law might have been useful to him. The legal implications are implicit.
Available for purchase as special print on Amazon, Bregman’s self-published Bouvier Affair certainly is an engaging work, as an international investigation that dives into the lives and stories of billionaires and artworks; in under 200 pages, it is one that provides unique insights into the elite art world. Her detailed caricatures create an easy-to-read narrative into these scandalous lives. Other sources, including Knight’s The Bouvier Affair, do the same in trying to explain the characters and the lawsuit; it appears that the social lives of Rybolovlev and Bouvier are inextricably linked to their legal battle. As a journalist, Bregman focuses less on the artworks and more on the people possessing them; she provides a detailed investigative contribution into the story of the Salvator Mundi as well as other paintings. She devotes a lot of attention to the history of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Modigliani. The reader gets a view of the affairs on Russian oligarchs’ private yachts in the chapter entitled “Water Serpents” as well as vaults in the Singapore Freeport, of which the book provides pictures taken by the author herself in the chapter titled, “The Safest Place.” It’s sections like these that allow the reader to see the extent of the research that Bregman did all over the world.
One thing worth mentioning: for the cover of her book, the author chose to reproduce a portion of Gustav Klimt’s “Water Serpents II” (1904-06/7), one of more than 35 paintings that Bouvier helped Rybolovlev acquire between 2003 and 2014. The cover depicts beautiful, dreamy and dangerous nymphs. One art critic, Ludwig Hevesi, compared the gold in the painting to coins. Could they be hinting at the seductive and destructive powers that art wields over those who seek to have too much? If so, Bregman may have used the art as a fitting parable to the underlying theme of the scandal. Who should one trust in the art world? What sort of power does art hold over rich investors? Where do the scandal and legal battles end?
About The Bouvier Affair’s Author: Alexandra Bregman, a writer and art specialist, graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She has held positions at Christie’s and Gagosian Gallery. This is her debut book, which follows years of traveling and writing for The Wall Street Journal, The Art Newspaper, and The Asian Art Newspaper in London, among other publications. She received her bachelor’s degree from Smith College and currently resides in New York.
The Book: Alexandra Bregman, The Bouvier Affair: A True Story (Ingram Content Group, 2019). Available here.
- Matthew Shaer, The Invention of the Salvator Mundi: Or How to Turn a $1,000 Art-Auction Pickup Into a $450 Million Masterpiece (New York Magazine, 2019). ?
- Shaer, The Invention of the Salvator Mundi. ?
- Bregman, The Bouvier Affair, 7, 9. ?
- Shaer, The Invention of the Salvator Mundi. ?
- Sam Knight, The Bouvier Affair: How an art-world insider made a fortune by being discreet, (The New Yorker: January 31, 2016). ?
- Alexandra Bregman, The Bouvier Affair: A True Story (2019), 174. ?
- Ibid, 4, 16. ?
- Ibid, 16. ?
- Kenneth Rapoza, Billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev’s Lawsuit With Art Dealer Yves Bouvier Puts Sotheby’s in Crosshairs (Forbes: August 8, 2019). ?
- Bregman, The Bouvier Affair, 21. ?
- Bregman, The Bouvier Affair, 16; Knight, The Bouvier Affair: How an art-world insider made a fortune by being discreet. ?
- Knight, The Bouvier Affair; Bregman, The Bouvier Affair, 181-2. ?
- Angel Au-Yeung, The Legal Fight Surrounding the Most Expensive Painting in the World (Forbes: December 5, 2017). ?
- Rapoza, Billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev’s Lawsuit. ?
- Au-Yeung, The Legal Fight Surrounding the Most Expensive Painting in the World. ?
- Jonathan Stempel, Sotheby’s Must Face Russian Billionaire’s Lawsuit Over Art Fraud- U.S. Judge (Reuters.com: June 25, 2019). ?
- Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev is suing Sotheby’s for $380 million (Artsy.net: October 3, 2018). ?
- Ibid. ?
- Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev is suing Sotheby’s for $380 million. ?
- Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev is suing Sotheby’s for $380 million. ?
- Alexandra Bregman, “Email from July 30, 2019.” ?
- Bregman, The Bouvier Affair, 95, 77. ?
- Bregman, The Bouvier Affair, 93-4. ?
- Bregman, The Bouvier Affair. ?
- The Last Leonardo by Ben Lewis, an art historian and critic, which goes into more detail about the debate over the Salvator Mundi’s authenticity and its backstory.
- The Invention of the Salvator Mundi: Or How to Turn a $1,000 Art-Auction Pickup Into a $450 Million Masterpiece (New York Magazine, 2019) by Matthew Shaer, which gives a quick history of the work and its buyers.
- Sophie Kalkreuth’s Meet the man who found the da Vinci that sold for a record US$450 million for more information on how the work was discovered (South China Morning Post, 2018).
- Margaret Dalivalle, Martin Kemp and Robert Simon ‘s Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) to hear the story from Robert Simon himself.
The Author would like to thank Ms. Bregman for answering her questions and providing her with insightful comments about the writing and investigative process spent on writing The Bouvier Affair.
About the Author:
Jacqueline Crispino was a Summer 2019 intern for the Center for Art Law. She is a recent graduate from Georgetown University with a double major in classical studies and history. She currently attends the University of California, Berkeley Law. Jacqueline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.