Russian oligarch sues Sotheby’s as art world worries

In the weeks that followed, Bouvier wrote to Rybolovlev’s assistant to update him on the negotiations, which Judge Furman said never took place. The seller, Bouvier wrote, had rejected offers of $90 million, $100 million, $120 million and $125 million, before ultimately accepting $127.5 million.

On May 2, 2013, it was Bouvier, not Rybolovlev, who purchased the “Mundi” through Sotheby’s with the installation of a painting and cash valued at $83 million. A day later, he sold it to Rybolovlev for $127.5 million, according to court documents.

In early 2015, as Rybolovlev became suspicious, Bouvier asked Sotheby’s for an estimate of “Mundi.” Valette suggested to a colleague at the auction house that they value the work at $125 million, but the colleague was hesitant, according to court documents.

Ultimately, Valette asked his colleague to change the valuation to 100 million euros, or about $114 million, Judge Furman found, and to amend the accompanying letter, “deleting any reference to Bouvier’s previous purchase of the piece. Although the judge called attention to the changes, and the jury will hear about them at trial, he ruled that the appraisal did not constitute proof that Sotheby’s was complicit in fraud.

Rybolovlev then sold the work at Christie’s to a Saudi prince for $450 million, the highest amount ever paid for a work of art at auction.

Experts say the jury trial could provide new guidelines for a more transparent art market.

“There is so much secrecy in the art world that buyers sometimes don’t know how much money others are making in transactions,” said Leila A. Amineddoleh, an art lawyer. and cultural heritage. “This case will therefore help to clarify the responsibilities and fiduciary duties owed to customers by dealers and auction houses.”