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The Last of da Vinci’s Secrets: From King Louis XII to Freeport King Yves Bouvier

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The art world eagerly awaits the unveiling of “Salvator Mundi”, the last da Vinci masterpiece, indefinitely postponed by the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, where it is currently on long-term loan from the Emirate’s Department of Culture and Tourism. 

The reason behind the delay remains unknown, adding yet more mystery to the enigmatic story of the world's most expensive artwork. By simply glancing at a photo of “Salvator Mundi”, you realise why thousands of people are so anxious to see it with their own eyes. It evokes an unsettling feeling of being implicated in something transcendent, as the Saviour, god and human, man and woman all in one, gazes past you into the beyond.

Yves Bouvier

The painting has come a long way in the past 13 years; from total obscurity, to being the centrepiece of the infamous Yves Bouvier affair (which is believed to be the largest fraud in the history of art), to finally fetching the record-shattering price of $450 million at auction.

Secret 1: The Last da Vinci Held in a Private Collection

Not much is known about the painting before 1945, when it was sold at a London auction for a mere £45. Leonardo most likely created it around 1500 for then King of France, Louis XII. For centuries, it was thought to be no more than a pupil’s copy of the original. It is believed to have been a part of King Charles I’s personal collection that saw him beheaded in 1649. It was hanging in Buckingham Palace back when it was still called Buckingham House in 1703. It survived the Nazis’ 1940 London Blitz, when its keepers abandoned it in their basement. By 1958, its origins had become so lost in time that it was sold for a paltry $90 to a collector from Louisiana.

In 2005, Robert Simon, an American art historian and dealer, found a strange old painting in a catalogue of an estate sale in Louisiana. It looked like a hideously overpainted and badly disfigured portrait of a befuddled prehistoric hippie; the walnut panel was cracked. However, he asked his friend and fellow art dealer Alexander Parish to buy it for what is thought to be $10,000. There was something that made it stand out from dozens of similar Christ-themed paintings from early 1500s Italy. Maybe the hand of the long-haired person depicted looked somewhat familiar. He decided to take the painting to Dianne Modestini, an art restorer and da Vinci expert. As they discovered the true nature of the work buried beneath recent re-paintings, something became more and more evident: they had managed to lay their hands on the long-lost Leonardo original.

Secret 2: Is It Even Real?

It took six years of restoration, resuscitation and cleaning before the Saviour was his old self. The subsequent sale arrangements were no picnic either, as many naysayers still argued it was merely one of 20 copies of the work that are known to exist. As Simon and Parish could no longer bear the expenses associated with “Salvator Mundi”, they enlisted the help of Warren Adelson, president of Adelson Galleries. In 2013,as reported by Bloomberg, a consortium of dealers including Simon, Parish and Adelson sold “Salvator Mundi” for $80 million to a company owned by Swiss businessman and art dealer Yves Bouvier. Bouvier, in turn, sold it to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million in 2014.

For years, Bouvier was mostly known for his family business Natural Le Coultre, which specializes in the transportation and storage of precious goods and works of art. His reputation was never truly spotless. As some 120,000 pieces of art were stored in his facilities at once, he knew full well who was willing to buy and who was desperate to sell. He never hesitated to use that insider information to buy cheap and sell at huge mark-ups. Bouvier is also known as the “King of Freeports”. These are tax-free “artistic hubs” grouped into specialized facilities that offer services and rental facilities to art collectors, museums and companies. He started with Geneva and later expanded to Singapore and Luxembourg. The Bouvier-controlled freeports are a real hotbed of the shadow art market. No wonder it drew criticism from the EU parliament for “lack of control” that is “enabling money laundering and untaxed trade in valuables.”

Secret 3: The True Colours

In 2008, he became embroiled in a legal case involving Lorette Shefner, a Canadian collector. Her family claimed that 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.

In 2002, he met Dmitry Rybolovlev, a wealthy former potash mogul from Russia interested in building a private collection, and became his art advisor and agent the following year. Things initially went well for Rybolovlev and his trusted man Bouvier, as together they managed to constitute an impressive collection of 37 masterpieces from 2003 to 2014. But even the longest day has its end and eventually the Russian billionaire found out his agent wasn't just working for him for a 2% fee from each purchase. The Swiss had other things in mind. In fact, Bouvier systematically overcharged him, with a mark-up sometimes exceeding 50%.

Secret 4: Con of the Century

Rybolovlev launched litigation against Bouvier in Switzerland, Monaco, the USA and Singapore. He claims the Swiss scammed him of more than $1 billion. Sotheby’s, one of the world's largest brokers of fine art, jewelry and other collectibles, has been accused of aiding and abetting Bouvier in the price-rigging scheme. Rybolovlev has alleged that Bouvier originally paid Sotheby’s $80 million for “Salvator Mundi”, but charged him $47.5 million more, a mark-up of almost 60%. Rybolovlev had originally offered $100 million, but Bouvier emailed him that the dealers had rejected it “without a moment’s hesitation.” As quoted in court papers, Bouvier further described the lead negotiator for the dealers in an email as “one tough nut.” “But, I’ll fight as long as necessary,” Bouvier promised in the same email. He finally reported that the purchase had been “clinched at 127.5.” “Terribly difficult, but it’s a very good deal with regard to this unique masterpiece by Leonardo,” the Swiss added.

American court documents reveal that the Rybolovlev lawyers allege that the auction house was aware of Yves Bouvier's scheme of re-selling the works to the businessman and "aiding and abetting" him in the alleged fraud. For example, by providing recommendations for the works used to persuade Rybolovlev to buy. Or by presenting, at the request of the art dealer, informal appraisals of the paintings, allowing Bouvier to justify the inflated prices. More than a third of the artworks Bouvier sold to Rybolovlev, including “Salvator Mundi”, were first traded to the Swiss by Sotheby’s. The consortium led by Robert Simon, who discovered in the press the amount paid by the Russian for the painting, now consider themselves cheated of $47.5 million. Sotheby’s claims it had no idea that when it traded with Bouvier he was re-selling the same works immediately to Rybolovlev at exorbitant mark-ups.

Secret 5: What’s Next?

When Rybolovlev put up “Salvator Mundi” for sale, it caused an anonymous bidding war of attrition between the two Arab princes who accidentally cost themselves $450 million. It turned out that each thought the other was their rival Qatar, according to palace sources. Yves Bouvier may want to think of this record-breaking price as cast iron proof of his innocence. After all, can you seriously consider yourself cheated if you buy for $127 million and then sell for $450 million? But just imagine, if you injure a person in a hit & run accident but they go on to recover and even win a gold medal at the Olympics, that does not mean you did them a big favour and that does not make the accident vanish, as if it never happened. Besides, when Rybolovlev resold the other works – many at substantial losses, with the da Vinci being a notable exception – the net financial result was a loss of $13.8 million.

The last twist in the remarkable story of “Salvator Mundi”, perhaps not as thrilling as its involvement in the Bouvier affair, is its being the first painting by Leonardo on permanent display in the Middle East. It singlehandedly puts the young Louvre Abu Dhabi on the world art map. After its initial unveiling in Abu Dhabi, it will travel to the Musee du Louvre for a planned Leonardo show marking the 500th anniversary of the artist's death. The Musee du Louvre show opens in October 2019, and when it closes in February 2020, the painting will return on a permanent basis to Louvre Abu Dhabi.

 

Economy

EU approves €2.9 billion in state aid for battery project attracting €9 billion

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The Commission has approved, state aid of up to €2.9 billion in funding for an ‘Important Project of Common European Interest’ (IPCEI) to support research and innovation in the battery value chain. The twelve EU countries involved will provide public funding expected to unlock an additional €9 billion in private investments.

The project, called “European Battery Innovation” was jointly prepared and notified by Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.

Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “For those massive innovation challenges for the European economy, the risks can be too big for just one member state or one company to take alone. Today's project is an example of how competition policy works hand in hand with innovation and competitiveness. With significant support also comes responsibility: the public has to benefit from its investment, which is why companies receiving aid have to generate positive spillover effects across the EU.”

When Vestager was asked if companies from outside the EU, such as Tesla, could benefit from this funding she said that this was possible and showed that the EU was committed to open strategic autonomy and welcomes non-EU firms when they have the right projects.

The Vice-President for Foresight, Maroš Šefčovič, said: “The Commission has given its green light to a second important project of the common European interest in the field of batteries. Technology is vital for our transition to climate neutrality. The figures show what an enormous undertaking this is. It involves twelve member states from North, South, East and West, injecting up to €2.9 billion euros in state aid in support of 46 projects designed by 42 companies, which in turn will generate three times as much private investment. "

The project will cover the entire battery value chain: extraction of raw materials, design and manufacturing of battery cells, recycling and disposal. It is expected to contribute to the development of a whole set of new technological breakthroughs, including different cell chemistries and novel production processes, and other innovations in the battery value chain, in addition to what will be achieved thanks to the first battery IPCEI.

 

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coronavirus

EU urges AstraZeneca to speed up vaccine deliveries amid 'supply shock'

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The European Union has urged AstraZeneca to find ways to swiftly deliver vaccines after the company announced a large cut in supplies of its COVID-19 shot to the bloc, as news emerged the drugmaker also faced supply problems elsewhere, write and

In a sign of the EU’s frustration - after Pfizer also announced supply delays earlier in January - a senior EU official told Reuters the bloc would in the coming days require pharmaceutical companies to register COVID-19 vaccine exports.

AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March, with an EU official involved in the talks telling Reuters that meant a 60% cut to 31 million doses.

“We expect the company to find solutions and to exploit all possible flexibilities to deliver swiftly,” an EU Commission spokesman said, adding the head of the EU executive Ursula von der Leyen had a call earlier on Monday with AstraZeneca’s chief Pascal Soriot to remind him of the firm’s commitments.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said Soriot told von der Leyen the company was doing everything it could to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.

News emerged on Monday that the company faces wider supply problems.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters AstraZeneca had advised the country it had experienced “a significant supply shock”, which would cut supplies in March below what was agreed. He did not provide figures.

Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said AstraZeneca would be supplying 150,000 doses instead of the 200,000 planned, and far less than the 1 million shots the country had initially requested.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on global supply issues.

The senior EU official said the bloc had a contractual right to check the company’s books to assess production and deliveries, a move that could imply the EU fears doses being diverted from Europe to other buyers outside the bloc.

AstraZeneca has received an upfront payment of 336 million euros ($409 million) from the EU, another official told Reuters when the 27-nation bloc sealed a supply deal with the company in August for at least 300 million doses - the first signed by the EU to secure COVID-19 shots..

Under advance purchase deals sealed during the pandemic, the EU makes down-payments to companies to secure doses, with the money expected to be mostly used to expand production capacity.

“Initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain,” AstraZeneca said on Friday.

The site is a viral vectors factory in Belgium run by the drugmaker’s partner Novasep.

Viral vectors are produced in genetically modified living cells that have to be nurtured in bioreactors. The complex procedure requires fine-tuning of various inputs and variables to arrive at consistently high yields.

“The flimsy justification that there are difficulties in the EU supply chain but not elsewhere does not hold water, as it is of course no problem to get the vaccine from the UK to the continent,” said EU lawmaker Peter Liese, who is from the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The EU called a meeting with AstraZeneca after Friday’s (22 January) announcement to seek further clarification. The meeting started at 1230 CET on Monday.

The EU official involved in the talks with AstraZeneca said expectations were not high for the meeting, in which the company will be asked to better explain the delays.

Earlier in January, Pfizer, which is currently the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to the EU, announced delays of nearly a month to its shipments, but hours later revised this to say the delays would last only a week.

EU contracts with vaccine makers are confidential, but the EU official involved in the talks did not rule out penalties for AstraZeneca, given the large revision to its commitments. However, the source did not elaborate on what could trigger the penalties. “We are not there yet,” the official added.

“AstraZeneca has been contractually obligated to produce since as early as October and they are apparently delivering to other parts of the world, including the UK without delay,” Liese said.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is expected to be approved for use in the EU on Jan. 29, with first deliveries expected from 15 February.

($1 = €0.8214)

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Brexit

Brexit butchers EU trade for Scottish beef producers

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Brexit has dealt a blow to Andrew Duff’s business. His burgeoning sales of high end Scottish beef to Europe are on hold because his business is too small to navigate the post-Brexit customs border for now, writes .

The 32-year-old had been on the verge of expanding the family business, using his social media marketing skills to promote the rare beef that has been reared on farms across the Scottish lowlands and borders for centuries.

Instead his Macduff business is now one of thousands across Britain that lack the financial firepower to throw at the myriad health checks, customs declarations and higher logistics costs that are required to export goods into the European Union.

“With these customers it takes years to build the relationship and get them on board, and it can take seconds to lose,” said Duff, whose clients include an award-winning butcher in Germany and a Michelin-starred restaurant in Belgium.

“Luckily January is a quiet month. Come February, March, if the situation is still the same then it could be problematic,” he told Reuters.

Far from the dire warnings of clogged ports and tailbacks that preceded the departure, Brexit so far has seen factories and fishermen unable to complete paperwork and get the goods off their yard. Many still do not know which forms need completing. Different couriers give different answers.

The government has said it is helping businesses deal with the “teething problems”. It has urged exporters to make sure their paperwork is in order and said it will give 23 million pounds ($31 million) to fishermen who have lost sales due to delivery delays.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that Britain would be free to trade globally once it had cast off the shackles of the EU. But his pursuit of a relationship that enables Britain to set its own rules means those firms trading with Europe face a full customs border.

Hardest-hit are the small companies that built up during Britain’s 47-year membership of the world’s biggest trading bloc to sell often low-priced product that was couriered at speed across the continent.

Almost half of 2018’s 76 billion pounds in exports to the EU from small and medium sized enterprises came from firms employing fewer than 9 people.

Where a huge meat or fish producer can fill one truck with one product and complete one set of customs paperwork, Duff sources top quality cattle from a selection of farms.

His goods - bone-in pieces from Shorthorn and Luing breeds - are sent on a truck carrying products from other suppliers, a process known as groupage.

Now a vet-approved health certificate is required for each firm’s goods, meaning potentially up to 30 per truck. One fish exporter said he needed over 400 pages of export documentation for one EU-bound lorry. One error can block delivery.

Duff’s transport company have said they are struggling as it is to help big customers, so groupage must wait.

He is also worried about prices, knowing that he cannot absorb all the costs of customs declarations, longer logistics times and the health certificates.

Logistics bosses believe Brexit could force a shake-out in trade. Truck volumes between Britain and the EU were on average down 29% in the first 20 days of the year, according to data firm Sixfold. Logistics groups say some trucks are returning empty to Europe to avoid export paperwork. Prices are rising.

One of those caught up in the bureaucracy is Sarah Braithwaite, who worked 16-hour days to build a horse feed firm that until 1 January was selling into 20 European countries.

This month her stock has failed to get to Europe or been rejected by customers over unexpected customs bills and taxes. Her Forage Plus has halted European orders - making up to 30% of her sales - and is refunding £40,000 to customers.

Braithwaite says her business is too small to build a presence in Europe to overcome the new barriers. “The trade that we’ve got now wouldn’t support the cost of setting all that up,” she said.

Both she and Duff are hopeful that exports can resume once the new system has bedded in but nerves are frayed. In desperation Braithwaite called the UK government for help.

The message she got back: ring the French embassy.

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