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

| September 21, 2018

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.

 

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