After just over three weeks, lawyers for both Dmitry Rybolovlev’s Accent Delight International and Sotheby’s made their closing statements in a case whose decision could have a major impact on how art dealers and auctions conduct business.
Monday’s closing arguments also mark what is likely the end of one of the art world’s longest-running feuds. For nearly a decade, the Russian billionaire and Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier have tussled in the courtroom over Rybolovlev’s claims that Bouvier overcharged him by $1 billion dollars over the course of 38 art works that Bouvier helped him acquire between 2002 and 2014.
Since 2015, Rybolovlev has accused and sued the Swiss dealer in jurisdictions across the globe. As yet, there have been no decisions in his favor. (That won’t change this week, of course, as Bouvier is not a party to this lawsuit).
The civil case Rybolovlev brought against Bouvier in Singapore was dismissed in 2017 because, according to the city-state’s court of appeals, the feud was better handled in a Swiss court. Last November, four months after the Geneva prosecutor’s office “held several hearings, which did not provide any evidence to retain sufficient suspicions against the defendants,” that office announced that it closed its case after prosecutors were told that Bouvier and Rybolovlev reached a private settlement agreement and Rybolovlev’s legal team pulled their complaint.
Unsurprisingly, both sides started their closing arguments with Bouvier, whose specter has haunted the proceedings since U.S. District Court Judge Jesse M. Furman agreed to a jury trial last year.
Plaintiff’s attorney Zoe Salzman began her closing by telling the jury the case was like a pointillist painting. “All you see is the dots,” she said, “you have to step back and connect those dots so you can see the whole picture. That is no small task given the magnitude of emails, contracts, and internal Sotheby’s handbooks and guidelines the jury was presented with, from both sides, multiple times.”
Unlike a criminal trial, which requires a defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, civil trials require only clear and convincing evidence. In this case, the jury must decide if there is clear evidence that Sotheby’s aided and abetted Bouvier in defrauding Rybolovlev. Throughout her closing, Salzman framed Samuel Valette, currently Sotheby’s head of private sales, a position she said he earned in large part because of his dealings with Bouvier, as “a greedy low-level manager,” interested only in “raising the ranks,” his next commission, perpetually at Bouvier’s beck and call.
It’s worth noting that, during the years in question, 2011 to 2014, sales to Bouvier accounted for between 86 and 97 percent of Valette’s business. It was in 2014 that Valette was promoted from a specialist to his current position. Salzman also made note of how much of Sotheby’s commission on the four works that make up this case, around $19 million, went to Valette: just over $979,000.
“Some of these numbers are just too big to comprehend,” Salzman said, leaning into the fact that the jury is comprised of solidly blue-collar New Yorkers, a nurse and a church organist among them, as well as a few whom are unemployed. “For any of us, $200,000 would be so huge.” (Incidentally, ECBAWM, the law firm where Salzman is a partner, is hiring associates. The salary range is $160,000 – $210,000.)
Ultimately, Salzman said, they had to prove that Bouvier defrauded Rybolovlev, that Sotheby’s helped, and that Accent Delight, Rybolovlev’s art-buying entity, was damaged in the process. Presumably, the first part is easy, given that both legal teams and Judge Furman, in his pretrial order, pointed to Bouvier as the true culprit.
Connecting Sotheby’s to the specific manuevers and alleged fabrications that the legal teams argued Bouvier used with Rybolovev is more complicated. As laid out by Salzman over the previous weeks, Valette raised valuations, changed currencies, and even asked his coworkers to change text in correspondence, all at Bouvier’s request. But, as defense attorney Marcus Asner would later argue, each of those instances had a plausible explanation, and there was no direct evidence that Valette knew Bouvier was lying outright to Rybolovlev about negotiations with nonexistent sellers over inflated prices.
In lieu of those direct indications of conspiracy, Salzman argued that Sotheby’s, and the art market at large, exhibited an overall culture of greed at Sotheby’s. A culture of turning a blind eye despite hints that something is rotten. Sotheby’s as an organization, she said, prizes money over everything else, “over principal, over truth, over their brand” and is “built on a system that is designed to enable people like Sam Valette.”
During the last few moments of her closing, you could be forgiven for thinking that Salzman was arguing against Big Tobacco or the oil industry. She echoed Rybolovlev’s testimony earlier in the trial when he said he wasn’t suing for money, but rather because people like him should be able to trust a company like Sotheby’s.
“Time to tell Sotheby’s that big companies are accountable under the law,” Salzman said. “That transparency and honesty matter.”
Asner was having none of it. He began his closing by arguing that Rybolovlev was defrauded, but only by Bouvier. “We are only here because Dmitry Rybolovlev wants someone to blame,” Asner said, before pointing out a fact that was seemingly buried in the mass of correspondence shown in evidence: Sotheby’s sold to Bouvier only one third of the works he would go on to sell to Rybolovlev.
Asner framed the entirety of the plaintiff’s case as a strawman argument. There was no proof, he said, that Sotheby’s was aware of Bouvier’s lies to Rybolovlev. “That simple fact is enough for you to go into the jury room and decide for Sotheby’s.”
Like in his cross-examination of Rybolovlev, Asner lay the blame squarely in the billionaire’s lap, making sure the jury remembered how much training as a doctor, a broker, and a businessman that Rybolovlev had and how it seemed that the one time he didn’t “surround himself with lawyers and accountants,” like he has throughout his career, he was taken advantage of.
For each of the works, Asner went through what he called “the greatest hits”—the bits of text often highlighted by the plaintiffs during questioning—and told the jury that despite the attempts to imply Sotheby’s knew what Bouvier was up to, there were none.
All that was proven, Asner said, was that Rybolovlev relied solely on Bouvier for advice, and that Bouvier was, in every example, the person who signed contracts with Sotheby’s and who took title to the works. Yes, Asner admits, Bouvier would forward emails about certain works from Valette to Rybolovlev, but always with his own opinion added.
As far as the clarion for transparency in the art market, Asner had a retort ready. He reminded the jury that, at every turn, Rybolovlev chose to conceal his identity, just most other major players in the art market. Discretion, Asner argued, was in large part his reason for working with Bouvier. At Bouvier’s prodding, Rybolovlev even cancelled a meeting with the sellers of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi with the express purpose of “breaking the morale” of the sellers, Asner said.
The plaintiffs are asking for no small sum of money: about $154 million, the price of Bouvier’s alleged markups on the works in question, plus the commission taken on the markup overage plus punitive damages, should the jury see fit.
The real question here is what does the jury make of all this? The art market is a shadowy place, even for those who live in it. What does it matter to a blue-collar worker in Queens whether one rich man gets defrauded by another rich man with a company that sold almost $8 billion worth of art last year in the middle?
Deliberation starts Tuesday.