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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Leonardo da Vinci and the Trump/Russia affair

Some days ago, I presented my incomplete video detailing the thesis that the "Cook" version of the Salvator Mundi -- the painting which recently sold for a record $450 million -- should not be considered the prime (first) version produced by Leonardo da Vinci. Of the sale, one YouTube commenter suggested: "This could, for all we know, be less related to art and more related to money laundering."

I wasn't sure what this cryptic remark had to do with the video's argument. Nevertheless, the possibility of using an art auction as a money laundering mechanism has begun to gnaw at me.

Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev -- the fertilizer-king-turned-art-collector whose name appears in numerous Trump/Russia stories -- bought the work in 2013 for $127 million. Previously, this version of the Salvator Mundi had been owned a Swiss businessman named Yves Bouvier, who purchased it for some $80 million. Bouvier owned the thing for only a few months before selling it to the Russian.

(Why didn't I mention Bouvier in my film? Because at the time we wrote the script -- 2013 -- his involvement was a big damn secret.)

All of this is tied to a terribly complex matter called the Bouvier Affair, a scandal which involves the notorious HSBC bank. I can't tell the whole complicated tale here, in part because I don't want to bore my readers, and in part because I don't yet fully understand it myself.

Bottom line: Mr. Rybolovlev used to be on friendly terms with Mr. Bouvier. In recent years, alas, the relationship has become rather frosty.

The story goes that Bouvier sold two stolen Picassos to Rybolovlev, who didn't know they were stolen. The Russian had to give the works back to the French authorities, which means that he lost a good deal of money. Understandably peeved, Rybolovlev is said to have "dropped a dime" on Bouvier, who was arrested in Monaco. Bouvier, for his part, claims that Rybolovlev bribed the Monaco cops.

Incredibly enough, Rybolovlev leveled another complaint against Bouvier: The Russian said that he was overcharged on the Salvator Mundi.

Ponder that. He just made a $270 million profit on the picture!

The whole affair becomes more mysterious the more one looks at it. Nobody knows who purchased the Cook Salvator Mundi for nearly half-a-billion dollars. (Art historians call this version "The Cook" because it was once owned by a collector named Cook.) Christies, the auction house which handled the sale, will spill no beans.

From a CNBC story:
Some dealers say the buyer is likely an American, since there is only one da Vinci in the U.S. — currently at the National Gallery in Washington — and it would make sense for a billionaire to buy it and donate it to a museum in New York or L.A.

Others say the price suggests it was a foreign buyer willing to pay anything to have a da Vinci in, say, China or the Middle East.

"This feels to me like it was someone who wanted to bring the only Leonardo to Asia," said one major collector. First, the sheer price of the painting rules out most everyday billionaires. Anyone who pays nearly a half billion for a painting is likely to be worth at well over $5 billion and most likely over $10 billion. That rules out all but around 150 of the world's more than 2,000 billionaires, according to wealth experts.
Side note: Most people know that Leonardo's Ginevra Benci may be found in the National Gallery in DC, but that's not the only work by the artist in the United States. In this 2007 post, this humble blog identified the current owner of the "Redford" version of The Madonna of the Yarnwinder as Stavros Niarchos III, whose primary residence is in Beverly Hills. Cannonfire was the first website to link the Niarchos family to that painting.

(Incidentally, that 2007 post briefly notes that I was already researching the de Ganay version of the Salvator Mundi. I had forgotten!)

(Perhaps I should also mention that the Dreyfus Madonna in the National Gallery may contain passages by Leonardo.)

It turns out that I'm not the only person to have questioned the conclusion that the Cook Salvator Mundi is the "prime" version. Perhaps the question of attribution may explain why Ryblovlev felt that Bouvier had cheated him...?

Using a painting as a pay-off. All of the above may link up with the Trump/Russia investigation.

As most of you know, Rybolovlev's relationship with Donald Trump is very controversial. From an earlier post...
Trump's lawyers did concede that a Russian purchased a Donald Trump property in Florida for $95 million, even though most observers agree that its actual market value was less than half that. Such a purchase is a good way to hide a "donation" or a bribe.
The man who bought the house was -- as most of you already know -- Dmitry Rybolovlev, who also owns the largest stake in the Bank of Cyprus. Therefore, we may say that he is part of the Putin/Vekselburg/Wilbur Ross "club." Rybolovlev also owns the private jet registered as M-Kate which has mysteriously followed Donald Trump's peregrinations the way my dog would follow me if I were carrying a BLT sandwich.
From the Evening Standard:
Just before the 2016 election, his jet landed at the same obscure airport as Trump’s just before the latter was about to address a rally nearby. Earlier that summer his yacht had docked in Croatia as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner holidayed there. Rybolovlev said the planes were a coincidence and that he had never met Kushner.
Let us now pause to savor the mysteries of Dmitry Rybolevlev. This is a man who bought a Trump property for far, far more than it was worth. (If I recall correctly, Rybolevlev didn't even live in the damned house.) Yet this same man became pluperfectly pissed off when he decided that he "overpaid" for a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, even though he bought the painting for $127 million and later sold it for $450 million.

Question: Why did he pay so much for Trump's mansion? It's not as though anyone held a gun to his head.

Another question:
If he felt that he was overcharged for the Salvator Mundi, why did he buy it? Again: It's not as though anyone held a gun to his head.

Still another question: Did a behind-the-scenes concern over attribution cause Rybolovlev to get a case of buyer's remorse? Is that why he suddenly began to say that he was robbed?

At this point, I would like to offer my own theory regarding the grand mystery of "Who bought the Salvator Mundi from Rybolvlev?"

What if the buyer was Vladimir Putin?

Putin has a genuine appreciation for art and has spoken intelligently about Leonardo. He has stated in public that he is particularly fond of the Litta Madonna, one of two Leonardos in Russia. (The other is the Benois Madonna. The attribution of both works, especially the Litta, has been questioned.)

Some say that Putin is the richest man in the world. He is certainly one of the very few people who can afford $450 million. Undoubtedly, he'd like to see another Leonardo hang in the Hermitage.

Turning our attention to the Trump/Russia controversy, we must keep one thing in mind: Putin always uses cut-outs. You won't find his fingerprints on any shady transaction.

Let us posit -- purely hypothetically -- that Putin wanted to funnel money to Donald Trump. Obviously, the Russian leader would never make a direct donation. He would direct one of his "princelings" -- his oligarchs -- to make the payment. (Remember: In Russia, the big capitalists don't work their way up from the bottom; they are selected from on high. Those who are selected owe everything to the man in charge.)

That same oligarch owns a shady bank in Cyrpus -- a bank tied to money laundering, a bank linked to both Putin and Trump.

Putin would then need to pay that oligarch for all of his services. How might Putin do this? By what mechanism?

One mechanism would be to make sure that a painting owned by that oligarch sells for three-and-a-half times more than the oligarch paid for it. 

Just for jolly, I'm going to re-present my Salvator Mundi video. Remember: This film is incomplete. The final version will have better narration. 

I met an art dealer ten years ago, not a high end guy, who thought that the high end art market was rife with money laundering and asset hiding. Some questions can be answered, though.

There was a piece, cited in the Wikipedia article, by Knight on Bouvier in The NewYorker (2015) which is very revealing about how Bouvier got where he got to. Some paraphrase follows.

From a reasonable point of view, Bouvier was overcharging, indeed he built a fortune of hundreds of millions being the trusted art dealer of Rybolevlev.

But the works he was supplying were breathtaking. At auction they'd bring extreme prices. Bouvier, from his own point of view, simply bypassed the auction and, buying low, sold to his client crazy high.

The problem came when Rybolovlev wanted to sell some of the work. Bouvier claimed he could not find any buyer at even the price that had been paid, and it's a rising market, right? This is where Bouvier made his huge mistake ( by not just buying back at the price paid to keep the faith, a common practice, I believe among legitimate art dealer working with a collector) and where the trust Rybolovlev felt for Bouvier began to weaken.

He investigated and was able to discover the astronomical profits Bouvier had been making at his expense. The trust was shattered and was replaced by a cold anger. And an interest in using the legal system to screw Bouvier.

That makes a lot of sense, Tom, and is consistent with things I've read elsewhere.

I still tend to feel that Rybolovlev may have purchased the painting in the first place because Putin asked him to. I'm certainly not the only one who suspects that R bought Trump's house after orders from "on high." And it is fair to presume that if R interfered in the Cyprus bank in a way that inconvenienced Putin, R would quickly find himself in a world of pain. If R acts as Putin's agent in those areas, then perhaps he was acting as Putin's agent when he bought that painting.
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