Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier has experimented with any number of business ventures, from carrying on his family’s shipping legacy to building a network of high-security freeports, to trying his hand at dealing rare art. All of these ventures counted on Bouvier’s extreme discretion. As one of Bouvier’s fellow art dealers explained in a New Yorker long read, the Swiss entrepreneur’s roles required him to “be a blind man” who stayed within his allotted role in order to win his clients’ trust.

As Bouvier himself put it in the same New Yorker story, he worked in the shadows. He could have stayed there, too, if he hadn’t been drawn into a massive legal row dubbed “the Bouvier Affair,”, in which the Swiss dealer has been accused by his former client, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, of having cheated him out of roughly a billion dollars.

According to Bouvier as quoted in Bloomberg, the years’ long dispute with Rybolovlev has had devastating effects on his business operations.

The so-called “freeport king” had to put a stop to his plans of extending his ultra-secure warehouse empire to Shanghai amid the controversy, was forced to sell his family company, and has been apparently looking for a buyer for his Singapore facility for the past two years. Back in September 2014, when Bouvier’s Luxembourg Freeport opened with great pomp and circumstance to the sounds of a specially-composed “Freeport” musical overture, such a fall from grace would have been difficult to imagine.

Yves Bouvier: from scion of a shipping magnate to a series of failed business ventures

Bouvier’s family connections gave him an early leg up in business. His father, Jean-Jacques Bouvier, managed to buy the noted shipping firm Natural Le Coultre, where he himself had begun his career as an apprentice in 1946. Yves later took over the management of Natural Le Coultre and seemed set to carry on his father’s legacy.

Those dreams fell apart in 2017 when Bouvier was forced to sell the 150-year-old company because of lawsuits from Rybolovlev in multiple jurisdictions, and investigations from Swiss authorities over whether he owed some CHF 165 million in back taxes.

If his tenure at the head of Natural Le Coultre ended in disappointment, most of Yves Bouvier’s other business ventures weren’t any more successful either.

As Le Monde shows, a line of energy drinks, Sin Thirst Sin, struggled to find its place in the market. Bouvier also tried to make his way in the helicopter manufacturing and precious metals sectors by creating two companies, Smartcopter SARL and Swiss CNC Technologies SARL alongside his lawyer Alexandre Camoletti. It remains unclear why a well-known Swiss lawyer like Alexandre Camoletti would wade into such complex industries with an entrepreneur with no relevant experience in the sectors.

Both companies were sold off in 2016.

On top of these failed ventures, a project to build the Marclay Meadows complex—eight luxurious apartments in the village of Vandoeuvres, outside Geneva— didn’t end very well either, according to Swiss newspaper Bilan. Consulting Immobilier SARL, a firm belonging to Yves Bouvier and managed by Christian Aouad, invested 9 million Swiss francs into the project. In 2016, the company went bankrupt, and Aaoud died soon afterward.

The most peculiar part of the saga? As the Swiss paper Bilan notes, a few months before the bankruptcy, Bouvier bought one of the apartments in Aouad’s name—but for only 2.6 million Swiss francs rather than the standard asking price of 4.3 million Swiss francs. When it went under, Consulting Immobilier SARL still owed some 8 million Swiss francs to its subcontractors—Pierre Dubouchet SA, Ramelet SA, Claudio D’Orlando, BM Architects, Mardeco—who suspected that Bouvier himself had orchestrated the company’s bankruptcy and pressed charges against him for mishandling the business.

Yves Bouvier’s golden age: the fine art trade

Energy drinks and luxury residential construction may not have panned out for Yves Bouvier, but he was highly successful in the art market: perhaps because it’s a notoriously opaque industry, where trust is key. As outlined in a New Yorker profile investigation, Bouvier’s big break came in 2003 when he was hired by Russian investor Dmitry Rybolovlev as his art dealer. Over the next decade, Rybolovlev bought some 38 artworks from Bouvier for his private collection.

According to the Guardian, Rybolovlev thought that they had an understanding that Bouvier sold him these works for a two percent commission. In 2014, however, Rybolovlev became suspicious that Yves Bouvier had in fact been pocketing a sizeable markup on each painting—to the tune of some $1 billion in total. Per Le Point, Bouvier apparently also gave Tania Rappo, the woman who introduced him to Rybolovlev, sizeable kickbacks of up €80 million.

Rybolovlev is now suing his former dealer for fraud and money laundering in Monaco, France, Switzerland, and the United States, and has also accused auction house Sotheby’s of having been complicit in the fraudulent scheme.

A third of the paintings the Russian billionaire bought from Bouvier passed through Sotheby’s auction house. According to Les Echos, many were signed off on by Samuel Valette, the Vice President of Sotheby’s Worldwide Private Sales and a close associate of Yves Bouvier’s.

A remarkably similar case emerged last year. Another Russian businessman, Vladimir Scherbakov, alleged that one of Yves Bouvier’s fellow Swiss art dealers, Thierry Hobaica, sold him artworks at an excessive markup, totaling some $600 million.

The transactions by which Scherbakov bought the paintings passed through a sophisticated network of offshore companies—including some belonging to Yves Bouvier.

The Rybolovlev and Scherbakov scandals come on the heels of another nasty affair Bouvier was involved in. Back in 2012, the Swiss dealer was accused of fraud by Lorette Shefner, a Canadian collector. Her family alleges that Bouvier persuaded her to sell a Soutine painting below its market price, after which Bouvier resold it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington for a far higher sum.

Yves Bouvier and his offshore companies

On top of this plethora of scandals, Yves Bouvier has run into trouble with the Swiss tax authorities. Officially a Singaporean resident since 2009, Bouvier made regular trips back to his native Geneva. Artnet reports that in 2017, Ueli Maurer, then the head of Switzerland’s Federal Department of Finance, asked fiscal authorities to launch an administrative probe into Bouvier to see if he was actually still a Swiss resident. If this were true, Bouvier could be liable for as much as CHF 165 million in back taxes, including some incurred on the profits he made off of the paintings he sold to Rybolovlev.

What’s more, Yves Bouvier built a complex network of private companies to manage his wealth. To do so, he used the services of Alexander Camoletti, from the Swiss firm R&R Avocats named in the Panama Papers. Bouvier also invested a great deal of money in freeports, whose business model centers around secrecy. Before 2017, he was the largest tenant in Geneva’s freeport.

Yves Bouvier and a growing stack of scandals

However, a number of scandals pushed the authorities to impose strict controls on these transit points.

The Luxembourg Freeport, owned by Yves Bouvier, has come under scrutiny from a number of members of the European Parliament. In February 2017, an EP delegation visited the facility and decried its total lack of transparency, with MEPs Anamaria Gomes and Evelyn Regner declaring the Freeport is a facility “a way that could be easily used to store goods away from anybody's control, for putting them in the dark when it's more convenient, avoiding tax.” As the MEPs put it: “what motivation do they have for putting these works of art in a bunker?”

MEPs sought in vain to have Philippe Dauvergne, the director-general of the Luxembourg Freeport, take part in debates held last October over the lack of transparency in these facilities. MEP Wolf Klinz ultimately took the measure directly to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, asking him to curtail the activities of the Freeport created while he served as Prime Minister of Luxembourg.

These suspicions of fraud were only reinforced by the dubious reputation of some of the Luxembourg Freeport’s major shareholders, Jean-Marc Peretti and Olivier Thomas. According to Le Point, Peretti may have ties to both Corsican organized crime and underground gambling circles. Peretti, notably, was involved in negotiating—along with Samuel Valette— the sale of the da Vinci work Salvator Mundi (now the most expensive painting in the world). As for Olivier Thomas, according to Art Forum he was accused of having stolen two Picasso works from the artist’s stepdaughter, Catherine Hutin-Blay. The presence of these rather problematic figures in Yves Bouvier’s close circle of acquaintances certainly exacerbated MEPs’ concerns about his freeport empire.

Apparently unable to succeed in his traditional business ventures, Yves Bouvier made his fortune in sectors known for their opacity: the art market and the freeport business. His business decisions are now coming out of the shadows, as he is being forced to defend his entrepreneurial activities to fiscal and judicial authorities and the media.

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