Sotheby’s was cleared Tuesday in Manhattan federal court of claims that they helped Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier defraud Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, in a high-profile civil case that has stretched on weeks.
A jury of ten New Yorkers deliberated for five hours, during which they discussed evidence that included email correspondence between Samuel Valette, who currently serves as the auction house’s head of private sales, and Bouvier. The plaintiff’s lawyer had argued that those emails showed Valette knowingly altering valuations for Bouvier, which the dealer then sent on to Rybolovlev to justify major markups on works he had already purchased.
As is the case for civil cases, the plaintiff was charged with providing “clear and convincing evidence” that Valette, or any of his colleagues at the auction house, knew about Bouvier’s alleged manipulative tactics, which often consisted of emails detailing fierce negotiations with apparently non-existent buyers.
Despite the favorable outcome for Sotheby’s, much of their internal workings and business practices were laid bare during the trial, which offered a rare glimpse into the secretive world of auction house private sales that in recent years make up a large part of Sotheby’s and their competitors’ commissions. The case may have also served as a warning shot to the subset of art dealers who play fast and loose with multimillion dollar works of art.
Throughout the case, Rybolovlev’s attorney’s claimed that his ultimate goal was “greater transparency in the art market.” However, during closing arguments, Sotheby’s attorney Marcus Asner argued that while he agreed that Rybolovlev was taken advantage of, his feud was not with Sotheby’s but with Bouvier, who, while not a party to the trial, was mentioned more than either the plaintiff or defendant during the proceedings.