More than two weeks into the trial in which Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, through his art buying company Accent Delight, is suing Sotheby’s for what he claims is their part in a scheme to overcharge him for works spearheaded by Swiss art dealer and freeport magnate Yves Bouvier, there is little ground left untread.
During the first half of the day, Samuel Valette, Sotheby’s head of private sales and Bouvier’s main contact at the auction house during the years in question, from 2010 to 2014, finished his testimony which began on January 16.
Over that time, both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s counselors picked over emails between Valette and everyone from Alex Bell, co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings department, and Sotheby’s then-chief executive Bill Ruprecht to Bouvier and Bouvier’s “advisor” and surrogate during negotiations, Jean-Marc Petretti.
The only person, it seems, Valette didn’t correspond with was Rybolovlev, a key sticking point in the plaintiff’s case. That lack of direct connection didn’t stop plaintiff’s attorney Daniel Kornstein from attacking Valette in regard to email exchanges with Bouvier in which Valette provided auction estimates, then changed them to private sales estimates, ostensibly at Bouvier’s request.
Kornstein also took aim at what he argued was Valette’s cavalier attitude towards Sotheby’s business model of representing both buyer and seller in private transactions and the fact that not once in the three times Valette met Rybolovlev did Valette mention he’d been appointed as Rybolovlev’s Key Client Manager (an internal Sotheby’s term, no longer in use, that indicates a designated specialist who is working towards building a relationship wirh a possible or current client).
The tension has been high when Kornstein and Valette face off and today was no different. At least twice the judge told Kornstein to stop a line of questioning and “save it for your closing.” Once Valette was finished, Judge Furman, who should be given credit for his occasional humorous quips and nudges to both sides to move along when a question is asked multiple times, said, “Mr. Valette, I’m pleased to say you’re free to go.”
The art advisor Sandy Heller, who now works with Rybolovlev and who has helped him arrange the sale of many of the works he bought from the Swiss dealer, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s, took the stand next.
Despite his testimony being colorful, most of what he said had been relayed to the jury more than once already. He recounted the day he met Rybolovlev, late December 2014 over lunch on St. Barth’s at the Eden Rock Hotel. It was during that lunch, after Heller congratulated Rybolovlev on his acquisition of Modigliani’s Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion and told him how much his client, Steve Cohen, had sold the picture for, that Rybolovlev said he realized to what extent he may have been taken advantage of.
In a meeting the next day, at the Ile de France hotel, Rybolovlev flipped though images of his collection on his iPhone “at a dizzying speed,” according to Heller, and asked the advisor to judge the quality and value of the works. Heller told him “there were a few absolute masterworks, but the majority was just ‘pretty good.’”
“I asked who was helping him,” Heller testified, “and Dmitry looked at me and said ‘I’m working with the most important man in the art market. His name is Yves Bouvier.’”
“I said, ‘who?’ Never heard of the guy.”
When Heller asked Rybolovlev if he ever bought at auction, he said no, “nothing good ever comes to auction.”
“I didn’t accept that,” Heller said. “I said, ‘it sounds like you’re being controlled.’”
A few weeks later, Rybolovlev put Heller on retainer, the adviser said.
Heller’s time on the stand was short, and next up was Valette’s colleague at Sotheby’s, Alex Bell. While much of what Bell was asked had also been brought up before, he was able to give interesting context into the events leading up Bouvier’s purchase of Salvator Mundi inasmuch as he was the point of contact for the painting’s sellers, Alex Parish, Robert Simon, and Warren Adelson.
Like with Valette, the defense asked multiple times who Bell thought was being referred to when the word “client” was used in emails from Valette. (Always Bouvier, he said.)
Bell did provide one new piece of information. Another Russian billionaire expressed an interest in Salvator Mundi: Andrey Melnichenko. According to Bell, Melnichenko approached Adelson in 2012, around the time the Mundi was on view at London’s National Gallery, with an offer of $100 million. Adelson, Bell said, rejected the offer without consulting the other members of the Mundi consortium, to the chagrin of Parish.
Bell also recounted the chaotic dinner at the Hotel Bristol on April 10, 2013, which was meant to be a celebration in honor of closing the Mundi sale, but which turned out to be an extension of negotiations between Peretti and Adelson, with Adelson’s wife, Bell, and Valette playing spectator as Peretti made a lowball offer and promptly got up to smoke a cigarette or call Bouvier, who sources tell ARTnews lives less than a block away.
The trial feels like it’s coming to a close and the plaintiff has rested their case. If the last few testimonies were any indication, there’s not much new to add and each side will have to bolster their case when closing arguments (eventually) come around.