Art market

Russian billionaire’s family trust joins Picasso heir in accusations against leading art dealer

Olivier Thomas is released from police custody, while Yves Bouvier denies all allegations

The feud between the art transporter and dealer Yves Bouvier and the art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev—a Monaco-based Russian billionaire—has taken a new turn in Paris after police questioned Olivier Thomas, one of Bouvier’s associates. According to information received by The Art Newspaper, a trust connected to the Rybolovlev family has entered the legal proceedings as a plaintiff.

Thomas was brought in for questioning last week by France’s organised-crime squad, after a raid on his Paris office, but was released before the weekend. The French art dealer, who is also the chairman of the Luxembourg Freeport, may be summoned for further questioning by a judge next week. "Mr Thomas is free and remains available to co-operate with the judicial authorities," the freeport said in a statement on Friday, declining to comment further. In Paris, Thomas’s company, Art Transit, also declined to comment. The Art Transit holding company, which is based in Geneva and is chaired by Yves Bouvier’s father, did not respond to requests for comment.

The investigation was launched after Catherine Hutin-Blay, the daughter of Jacqueline Picasso, the artist’s widow, filed a complaint on 13 March. An investigation into theft, illicit possession and fraud began on 23 March. Hutin-Blay had discovered, through recent press reports describing Rybolovlev’s collection, that it included two portraits of her mother, both dated 1957, that she says are hers. One depicts Jacqueline with a fan and a Spanish mantilla; in the other, she is doing her hair. Her daughter says that the works disappeared while being held in a secure storage area run by Art Transit in Gennevilliers, in the northern suburbs of Paris.

Hutin-Blay says she first contacted Olivier Thomas in 2008, when she was selling one of Picasso’s properties on the Riviera—the Mas Notre-Dame-de-Vie, in Mougins. She says she asked Thomas to remove part of the collection from the property and put it into storage.

In 2014, Hutin-Blay went to Gennevilliers to update the inventory. She told police that she was initially refused entry. When she was finally allowed in, she found blank export licences that raised her suspicions. She says she returned two weeks later to find that objects and works in the storage unit had been moved.

Hutin-Blay says she subsequently cut all ties with Thomas, despite having asked him to sell 12 of her works in 2010. She says that she then noticed that some paintings might have been missing. When she saw two of them, which she values at around €3m each, in Rybolovlev’s collection, she says she was startled. The Russian collector says that he was not aware of the alleged theft.

Jacqueline Picasso’s daughter says she has also discovered that the paintings might have been cleaned without her knowledge in 2012. Flavio Capitulino, a conservator, told police that he was called in by Bouvier, Thomas and their associate Jean-Marc Peretti to clean several works, including the two portraits by Picasso. Capitulino was allegedly told that they had come from Picasso’s workshop and were supposed to be shown to an important client.

Bouvier, Thomas and Peretti are partners in the Luxembourg Freeport, which opened in September 2014. Thomas replaced Bouvier as the head of the company when Bouvier was charged with fraud and complicity in money-laundering in Monaco at the end of February.

Luc Brossollet, Bouvier’s Parisian lawyer, says that his client “never heard of any stolen Picassos. For all the paintings he acquired, he asked for a certificate from the Art Loss Register, demonstrating that it has not been registered as missing or stolen.”

Bouvier stands accused of taking large commissions on the paintings bought by Rybolovlev. Bouvier denies the accusations and says that, as an art dealer, he is free to charge commission at his discretion.

Correction: This article was updated on 18 May 2015. A trust connected to the Rybolovlev family has joined the lawsuit against Yves Bouvier, not the collector himself.