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A (not very) sad story of a Russian oligarch and Salvator Mundi

Bumelant loves art. Art is our main source of inspiration, which is why we observe the art world carefully. And, oh boy, the things we see.

Today’s tale is the tale of collusion and manipulation, sketchy art dealers and art institutions, overnight enrichment and criminal drama, greed and profiteering. It has got it all, really. But let’s start from the end.

A few days ago in January 2024, a New York court ruled that an auction house Sotheby’s, where people in white gloves will sell you art of dubious provenance if the price is right, is not guilty of defrauding a Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev of about a billion bucks (pocket change, really). The reason for the petulance of one of Russia’s money-spewing globetrotters was that apparently the auction house, together with a certain individual Yves Bouvier (more on this amusing character in the next post), sold the oligarch dozens of artworks for inflated prices. The case in point here is Salvator Mundi, a Da Vinci attributed painting, which the oligarch purchased from Mr. Bouvier for 127.5 million dollars. And everyone would be blissfully happy if Mr. Rybolovlev didn’t find out that his buddy Bouvier bought this very same painting just a day before from Sotheby’s for 80 million. Wait, what?

Let’s go through the scheme step by step here. A certain shifty art dealer with good hook-ups in the art world comes to a duncy Russian oligarch and says, “Zdravstvuy, comrade, I heard you’re looking to buy art. Well, do I have a paining for you!” The oligarch’s eyes shine bright with dollar signs. One hundred and twenty seven million dollars (and a half, which was probably spent the same evening on booze and hussies) are promptly dispatched. The art dealer goes to Sotheby’s, buys the painting for 80 mil, gives it to the Russian oligarch, while desperately trying to hide that wads of cash falling out of his every pocket were made purely from the oligarch’s gullibility. Again, 47.5 million dollars were made overnight by Mr. Bouvier just in one deal with Mr. Rybolovlev. And you’ve got to think how to pay bills next month.

Mr. Rybolovlev (whose last name ironically means “fishcatcher”) casts his nets across multiple seas, so to say. His art collection could probably rival some of the best world museums, but confirming our suspicion of his philistine nature, Mr. Rybolovlev admits that he regards his collection as an “investment” (read: to be stored in secretive vaults, rather than displayed for public benefit). It’s difficult to sympathize with a character like that for a long list of reasons, including his difficulty to comprehend market economics (nobody forced you to buy priceless works of art to lock in your vault, Smaug!). But the main reason why we find it hard to get on his boat (and we bet his boat is pretty impressive) here at Bumelant is that just four years after the allegedly scammy deal, Mr. Oligarch sold Salvator Mundi to another well-known connoisseur of fine art (and macabre dismemberments alike), Mr. Mohammed bin Salman for 450 million. Yes, you read it right. Mr. Fishcatcher made about 370 million on his investment. Most of us would be rather happy about the deal, even if we overpaid a bit in the beginning, but not our dearly beloved oligarch — no, no! After all, you don’t become and oligarch without the insatiable appetite for golden toilets (and at current price of gold, 47.5 million will buy you about 14 golden toilets of 150 lbs each, which ain’t nothing, if you ask us).

Well, we all know how this story ended. No golden toilets for you, Mr. Fishcatcher. As one particularly shifty Swiss art dealer would say, “C’est la vie, mon amie.” One day you buy a factory in Russia through a shady scheme that makes you a billionaire, and another day you make a certain Swiss art dealer a very happy billionaire himself.

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