Amedeo Modigliani, Nu Couché au coussin Bleu, 1916, one of the paintings in the ongoing dispute. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Singapore’s highest court ruled Tuesday to stay proceedings in the country against Swiss art dealer and freeport owner Yves Bouvier, the latest twist in a years-long international legal dispute between Bouvier and Russian art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev.
Rybolovlev had been seeking civil claims against Bouvier in Singaporean courts for fraud and breach of fiduciary responsibilities, arguing that proceeding in Swiss courts would deprive them of “substantial justice.” But the Court of Appeal found that Switzerland is the more appropriate forum for the dispute.
The decision sides with the arguments made by Bouvier’s lawyers, who asserted the transactions were governed by Swiss law, as specified in contracts for the pair’s initial four sales.
The case sheds light on the informal nature of high-stakes art dealing, in which even nine-figure transactions can be executed with barely more than a handshake. According to the judgment, four early transactions, conducted between 2003 and 2006, were executed according to written agreements which specified Swiss law as the governing law and Switzerland as the exclusive jurisdiction. After October 16, 2006, Bouvier and Rybolovlev proceeded transacting with just invoices, up until the relationship between the pair soured in 2014.
In 2009, Bouvier moved to Singapore and has been a permanent resident there ever since. Around the same time, Rybolovlev began to ship his art purchases to a freeport in Singapore, in an attempt to shield them from Russian authorities and his ex-wife Elena Rybolovleva, with whom he has been in divorce proceedings since 2008. Bouvier and Rybolovlev dispute whether the artworks moved through the Geneva freeport en route to Singapore, or whether they went directly to Singapore.
The legal battle between the pair began in January of 2015, when Rybolovlev filed a criminal complaint against Bouvier in Monaco. Rybolovlev charged that Bouvier—who Rybolovlev believed was acting as his agent—had defrauded him, overcharging him by roughly $1 billion dollars on the purchases of nearly 40 works of art, for which he paid in the region of $2 billion over roughly eight years.
Bouvier argues that he was functioning as a private dealer, and so was free to charge what he pleased when selling works to Rybolovlev.
In addition to a suit in Hong Kong, Rybolovlev brought civil charges in Singapore on March 12th, 2015 in an attempt to freeze Bouvier’s assets worldwide. A judge initially granted this request. However, the Court of Appeal unfroze the freeport magnate’s accounts in August.
The same court ruled in Bouvier’s favor again on Tuesday. In the decision, Judge Sundaresh Menon noted both men were based in Switzerland at the time they entered into a contractual relationship with each other. Additionally, according to the ruling, the four written contracts between the two were expressly governed by Swiss law and the “vast majority” of subsequent invoices required payment into Swiss bank accounts. Menon wrote that he had found “no reason to think that some law other than Swiss law applied to the relationship during that period.”
In rejecting arguments put forward by Rybolovlev, the court relied in part on the legal principle in which “a court must proceed cautiously before it pronounces that a litigant will experience a deprivation of substantial justice if it is left to seek recourse in an available and appropriate foreign forum.” The judge noted that courts generally hesitate to interfere with the rulings and judgements made by their sovereign foreign peers.
Though the stay is a victory for Bouvier in Singapore, legal proceedings against him continue in Monaco. And the ruling heightens the possibility of a suit in Switzerland—Bouvier’s preferred jurisdiction.
Ron Soffer, lead counsel for Bouvier, said in a statement “the Court has been clear—Singapore is not the appropriate forum for this case. Now the Plaintiffs have to decide whether to start again and initiate legal action outside of Singapore.”
Rybolovlev’s attorney in Singapore did not immediately respond to a request for comment.