A Swiss art dealer and a Russian billionaire are caught in a fight over the value of paintings each worth tens of millions of euros. This may sound like a familiar story, but it has nothing to do with the battle between Yves Bouvier and Dmitry Rybolovlev. A new criminal case was recently opened in Geneva after a fraud complaint was filed in late 2015 by an unnamed industrialist from the Baltic region, who has accused an art dealer of overcharging for works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti.
According to our sources, the Russian collector is Vladimir Scherbakov, who made his fortune in the automobile industry as the founder of Avtotor in Kaliningrad, Russia’s second largest car manufacturer, and became a key political figure in Russian politics. He was the last deputy prime minister of the USSR and was close to Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin. Scherbakov was also the head of the Soviet economic planning agency Gosplan and in 1991, took charge of the fund that privatised public business in Russia and other former USSR states. The art dealer is Thierry Hobaica, who worked with the late dealer Jan Krugier, our sources say.
The Tribune de Genève first reported on the case, without naming either party, but said the plaintiff was based in Cologny, Switzerland. The newspaper previously revealed in 2017 that Scherbakov’s son Sergei, who now leads Avtotor, bought one of the most expensive estates on the shores of Lake Leman in Cologny, nicknamed “millionaires’ hill”, from the daughter of Gennady Timchenko, co-founder of the energy group Gunvor, for €48m.
Vladimir Scherbakov reportedly paid a total of €700m for his art collection, and most of it was acquired through Hobaica, who set himself up independently after Krugier’s death in 2008. The Russian collector has accused the dealer of overcharging for the paintings and even hiding the real prices in his accounts. According to court documents seen by the Tribune, Hobaica pocketed €38m in commissions on his sales to the Russian billionaire, using the off-shore companies Servin International, United Trade Development Company, Finatrading Development and Wang Tak Trading Development. The newspaper reports that he told the investigators in the current fraud case that he used these channels to protect his client’s privacy.
The case differs from the feud between Rybolovlev and Bouvier because, according to a source close to the investigation, Scherbakov took the precaution of asking Hobaica to sign a contract as a personal broker, working for a fixed fee. (Yves Bouvier has always claimed he was an independent art dealer, free to set his own fees). But while Bouvier is not directly implicated in this case, he did serve as a witness because his company was as an escrow agent for the transactions. Scherbakov’s collection is also deposited at Natural Le Coultre in the Geneva freeport, which was formerly the Bouvier family’s storage facility.
Both parties, Scherbakov and Hobaica, were contacted for this article but declined to comment.
This article was amended on 11 July to make clear that Gennady Timchenko was the co-founder, and is not the owner, of Gunvor.