The next Moscow World Fine Art Fair will be held on September 25–30, 2018, within walking distance of the Kremlin and Red Square. This year’s edition of the Fair, begun in 2004 by Yves Bouvier, will be the 15th. Described as the most exclusive fair in Eastern Europe, it annually features about eighty of the finest international dealers specializing in fine jewellery, fine art and decorative objects from classical antiquity right up to the latest expressions of contemporary art. The event drew favorable comparisons to Maastricht TEFAF and the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires, both already established for over forty years.
As usual, the MWFAF will be the meeting point for the world’s leading art dealers and collectors, bringing together the world’s finest in all art disciplines, including unique creations of fine jewellery. This year’s edition will feature the famed Parisian Galerie Le Minotaure (specializing in Russian and Central European artists of the first half of the 20th century), Galerie Lucas Ratton (known for its rare African ritual sculptures), the Monegasque Maison d’Art (with masterpieces by Parmigianino and Titian) as well as a plethora of other big name exhibitors.
But as a discerning observer may notice, the name “Yves Bouvier” has vanished from the Fair’s official press releases. There must be a good reason for the MWFAF’s desire to cut links with its founding father. Well, here it is. Though once a renowned art connoisseur-dealer, the charming Swiss also created the infamous “bouviering” phenomenon, likely the largest and most complex fraud scheme ever to rock the art market.
At the inaugural Fair in 2004 – Bouvier later told a Russian publication – “we worked with the Ministry of Culture and Moscow City Hall. We did fancy events, which sought to attract both the Russian and the Western elite. During one of those evenings, while running my eyes over the hall, I realised I had never before seen such a quantity of billionaires.”
Some of these were later surprised to find the resourceful Swiss didn’t always act in his clients’ best interests. Indeed, Bouvier had other things in mind, like selling billionaires pieces of art with a mark-up as high as 60%. While some chose to keep silent out of shame or secrecy, one of these billionaires, the Russian Dmitry Rybolovlev, launched litigation against Bouvier in several jurisdictions. The former potash mogul claims to have been “bouvier’d” of about $1 billion over the sale of 37 artworks between 2003 and 2014, including da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”.
The story made headlines and became known as the “Bouvier affair”. An art expert who steals from the rich and gives… well, mostly to himself. But how about a network of 170 entities in a dozen jurisdictions, which he used for moving profits from his dealings? This makes George Clooney’s Danny Ocean seem a mere common pickpocket.
What’s more, Bouvier seems to be somehow connected to almost every major recent scandal in the art market. In 2008, he became embroiled in a legal case involving Lorette Shefner, a Canadian collector. Shefner’s family claimed she was the victim of a complex fraud, whereby she was persuaded to sell a Soutine painting at a price far below market value, only to see the work later sold to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC for a much higher price. Although not the primary defendant, court documents from 2013 accuse Bouvier of having acted “in concert” with several experts “to disguise the true ownership” of pieces of art in order to defraud the Shefners. Also, in 2013 it was revealed that Bouvier was implicated in the notorious case of Wolfgang Beltracchi, a German forger who was convicted in 2011 of having defrauded a number of collectors of millions of dollars. According to Die Zeit, in 2008 Bouvier founded Galerie Jacques de la Béraudière with Jacques de la Béraudière, who himself played a key role in the Beltracchi scandal. This, together with his ownership of an offshore entity called Diva Fine Arts (through which the fakes were sold), led to Bouvier being connected to the case.
As a true Don of the art market, Bouvier has trusted sidekicks, even the names of which seem taken from the Mario Puzo books – Alexandre Camoletti and Jean-Marc Peretti. They assist him in managing freeports – “artistic hubs” grouped into specialized facilities that offer services and rental facilities to art collectors, museums and companies. Camoletti was identified as one of the lawyers of Bouvier’s freeport company in 2015. Peretti, a Frenchman of Corsican origin previously linked to mobbed up illegal gambling and money laundering, and Olivier Thomas, another Bouvier associate, were once accused of stealing two Picasso paintings from the artist’s daughter, Catherine Hutin-Blay.
The two freeports in Geneva and Luxembourg drew the attention of the EU parliament in 2016–2017. Its report concluded that “lack of control” at the freeports is “enabling money laundering and untaxed trade in valuables.” But when Bouvier is having a tough time in one jurisdiction, he simply moves to another. Since 2009, he has been formally a Singapore resident, where he established another freeport. So even the $145 million tax evasion case opened against him in his native Switzerland doesn’t seem to bother him, for now.
Incidentally, Bouvier’s business interests have never been limited to art and freeports. At some point, with his legal advisor Alexandre Camoletti, he even invested in a helicopter company. Since, at this rate, there will soon be no jurisdictions left on Earth without cases against him, look for Bouvier to set up his own aerospace project in the near future. Indeed, for some of us only the sky is the limit. Beware, Elon Musk.