20/20 vision in the world of high-end art
February 2, 2016 3:57 PM   Subscribe

A painting commissioned for the firm’s hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary, “Transport Through the Ages,” hung above the reception desk. Bouvier insists that he never used confidential information from his logistics business to buy and sell paintings. None of the thirty-five works that he sold Rybolovlev were in storage with Natural Le Coultre. “I have the information not because I am a shipper,” he said. “It is because I am clever.”
The high-end of the art market is full of mystery, built on trust, reputation, and secrecy. What happens when someone starts turning all of that on its head? An art shipper, Russian oligarch, and a Rothko in The Bouvier Affair. (Sam Knight, for The New Yorker)
posted by redct (12 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
At the beginning of the article I thought this would be about how Bouvier was able to turn freeports into massive art centres combining galleries with safe art storage in a way that protected the owners from paying tax. Kind of like a swiss bank for the art world. Instead it turns out that he was able to leverage his chance encounter with a Russian oligarch into a great money-making scheme. The scale of this is astounding if Rybolovlev's billion dollar claim is true. If I were Bouvier I'd be worried about what would happen to me if I won the lawsuits. I know I wouldn't want to piss off a Russian oligarch.

From the outside looking in, this calls for something like a centralized art registry so that things like chain of ownership and the amount of money changing hands could all be tracked, not to mention any rights the artists may have to further sales. But high-end art is how people money launder so I guess they wouldn't want everything to be out in the open like that.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:45 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah I'm sure all these other art dealers are shocked by high markups and hidden fees in transactions with wealthy clients. The New Yorker author seems to buy into the patter of the other art dealers. If sme one tells you that their profession is built on trust, discression and integrity; run.
posted by humanfont at 5:47 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I know I wouldn't want to piss off a Russian oligarch.

I kept thinking this too, especially after all the stories in the 90s about how the restructuring of the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union led to a lot of very murky people seeking employment and finding it amongst the newly rich oligarchs who needed muscle. If Bouvier was never thrown into a van with a bag over his head, I guess the world is a much more civilized place than I imagine.
posted by fatbird at 5:59 PM on February 2, 2016

Yeah I'm sure all these other art dealers are shocked by high markups and hidden fees in transactions with wealthy clients.

Those other people who were reported to be shocked in the article aren't art dealers. They are people who ship art from seller to buyer, they stand alongside what the dealers have arranged, and are supposed to not play the game and instead find their paycheck through their discretion and ability to guarantee the safe transport of valuable items. This guy crossed the line between being one of those essentially (as in, it is an essence required of doing the business) blind and mute art logistics companies and persons and being an art dealer.

You might feel that is a small distinction to make, but actually, it is a distinction that is rather crucial to keep the already shady and highly questionable high end art market functioning.

I thought the article was fascinating. Truly a glimpse into a slice of the world that I hadn't even thought about before.
posted by hippybear at 6:33 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fascinating article... but I'm not sure I get what the crime was here. What's an art object worth? Whatever someone will pay for it?
posted by ph00dz at 7:55 PM on February 2, 2016

..tell that to the oligarch.
posted by bird internet at 8:04 PM on February 2, 2016

I don't think there was a crime, per se... it was more that someone overstepped their bounds in various ways that betrayed trust.
posted by hippybear at 8:07 PM on February 2, 2016

“You cannot call him an art dealer,” Blondeau said. “You call him a trader.”

So it's part of the class war, then.
posted by chavenet at 7:33 AM on February 3, 2016

Fascinating article... but I'm not sure I get what the crime was here.

The question is "Did Bouvier present himself as an agent?" An agent is the advocate of one of the parties in a deal. If Bouvier was considered an agent, but was in fact selling the artwork himself, he had a massive conflict of interest. As an agent, he'd try to get the lowest price possible for the buyer. As the seller, he'd try to get the highest price possible from the buyer.

That's why agents have a duty to *one* party. Bouvier, by acting to acquire art for Rybolovlev, was acting as an agent. He's due his pay for that. But instead of having Rybolovlev pay the seller, then collect a commission on the price for his work as an agent, he would buy the work, sell it to Rybolovlev for a much higher price, and then collect a commission on top of the profit he made selling the work to Rybolovlev. As an agent, it's the scummiest move in the world. The question, though -- was he actually an agent?

The legal question boils down to that 2% commission he collected and the statements he made to Rybolovlev. Did he ever present himself as an agent? Does that commission, in and of itself, mean he was an agent?

So that's the legal question. Pretending to be an agent for one party when you are in fact the *other* party is basically fraudulent.

He also broke convention as a shipper by becoming a seller. Shippers are normally not parties in the transaction, they're specialists at safely moving the works from point A to point B, and they get a great deal of access and information to enable them to do that. Shippers are worried that Bouvier's actions are going to make it harder for them do that, because the parties involved in the transaction might be less willing to give them the information and the access they need to legally ship the works -- so they are loudly condemning him for breaking the convention.
posted by eriko at 8:18 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Meh, Rybolovlev deserved it. Rich chumps like that exist to be scammed, and if not by Bouvier, then someone else would do it. It's not like the stuff he bought was any more of a scam at $190 million vs $110 million anyway.
posted by Slinga at 11:39 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

As Eriko describes, Bouvier may have been committing fraud. I tried writing a response here about how it seemed like Honest Service Fraud--where the consumer of a service has a reasonable expectation that they're not getting screwed by using the service at face value. But earlier in the article it describes the sale of a work involving contracts between Rybolovlev's trust and a shell company in Hong Kong for Bouvier, which implies pretty strongly that at the actual legal, money-changing-hands level, the relationship was straightforward seller-buyer. I would think this would undercut any case Rybolovlev might have wherein he says "I honestly believed he was my agent, not someone selling something to me."
posted by fatbird at 12:36 PM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah but Rybololev would have understood the shell company shenanigans as yet more of the Art World's SOP secrecy and tax avoidance, which a competent agent would be expected to facilitate. Same as one would expect from one's lawyers and accountants.
posted by notyou at 10:20 PM on February 4, 2016

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