Switzerland is considered one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Home to just 0.1% of the world’s population, the Alpine country boasts more than its fair share of the world’s wealthiest. 11% of Swiss residents are millionaires, undoubtedly lured by the country’s low tax rates and famously secretive banks—though the era of the latter is winding down.

Indeed, Switzerland has been making a concerted effort to clean up its reputation as a tax haven in recent years: last October the Swiss tax authority exchanged account data of Swiss bank accounts with other countries for the first time.

Advertisement
Advertisement

This effort has been seriously shaken, however, by Swiss entrepreneurs—such as art dealer Yves Bouvier, who’s facing a veritable smorgasbord of legal troubles.

An empire built on discretion

Switzerland would want to distance itself from a figure like Bouvier—a sentiment that Bouvier apparently shares, as he’s now casting himself as having been a resident of Singapore since 2009— though Swiss authorities are investigating the possibility that this residency claim is a fraud to let Bouvier off the hook for CHF 165 million in taxes.

But in many ways, Bouvier is a quintessentially Swiss character.

Until the stories of Bouvier’s alleged misdeeds started coming out in 2014, the Swiss entrepreneur wasn’t known as an art dealer. He inherited a century-old moving and storage company, Natural le Coultre. To gain his customers’ trust, Bouvier had to act with extreme discretion, a quality which is one of the hallmarks of the Swiss financial system. As one New Yorker profile of Bouvier noted, shippers of luxury goods have to know the most intimate details about the works they are transporting, and “are often in the room at moments of extreme commercial sensitivity”.

Advertisement

Bouvier built up relationships with the clients whose goods he was shipping based on a bedrock of trust, but eventually began moving into other businesses. He started exploiting the inside knowledge he had gleaned as a shipper to deal art himself, and built a network of the special tax-free storage areas known as freeports, earning him the sobriquet “the freeport king”.

Yves Bouvier and the case of the billion-dollar markup

Both of these ventures got Bouvier in trouble.

One of the Swiss dealer’s main clients was Russian potash mogul Dmitry Rybolovlev, who purchased 38 paintings for a total of $2 billion from Bouvier. Bouvier’s relationship with Rybolovlev was unusual from the start: while normally art collectors would rely on multiple dealers and auction houses, as well as art consultants, Bouvier, exceptionally, took all these roles on himself.

Equally unusual were the profits Bouvier was turning on his transactions, often routed through middlemen and offshore entities.

Advertisement

Bouvier himself declared, “if I buy for two and I can sell for eleven, I will sell for eleven”—and he apparently often did. Rybolovlev had been under the impression that Bouvier was earning a flat two-percent fee for his services as a dealer. Instead, the Swiss man was allegedly buying the paintings himself from auction houses and selling them to Rybolovlev at significant markups—Rybolovlev claims that Bouvier’s total profits on the 38 paintings he sold him totaled more than $1 billion.

Advertisement

Bouvier has been embroiled in a constant legal maelstrom since the scale of his margins became clear. He’s being sued by Rybolovlev in jurisdictions around the world and has been charged with everything from fraud to complicity in money laundering to evading Swiss taxes. The Swiss dealer has steadfastly denied all of the accusations and has tried to rehabilitate his image, agreeing to a rare interview with Swiss television in which he complained that he’s had to sell his yacht and that he has been “blacklisted” by the art market since his “problems”.

Freeports a recent buzzword in the European institutions

The “problems” Bouvier referred to in his interview have deepened in recent months, as a number of MEPs have raised concerns about the freeport model Bouvier has promoted around the world. Up until 2017, when he sold Natural Le Coultre, Bouvier was the largest tenant and minority shareholder in the hulking Geneva Freeport, where billions of dollars of goods remain in an almost-indefinite untaxed limbo. With the support of government officials including then-Luxembourgish prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and his coalition partners, Bouvier soon opened his own freeports in Singapore and Luxembourg.

Concerns have mounted, however, that the Luxembourg freeport’s lack of transparency makes it a vehicle for money laundering. A parliamentary delegation visited Luxembourg Freeport in February 2017 and voiced concern over the facility’s extreme opacity: as MEP Ana Gomes remarked when contacted by the BBC for a recent article on the transparency concerns associated with freeports, the freeport “is 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”. A report by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) confirmed these worries, and suggested that Bouvier’s network of freeports may be, like him, entangled “in an affair involving alleged fraud and insider trading”.

Since the MEPs’ visit and the EPRS report, the European Parliament has become increasingly concerned about the Luxembourg freeport. Its Special Committee on Financial Crimes, Tax Evasion and Tax Avoidance (Tax3) held a hearing in October 2018 on the possibility that freeports may be used for everything from tax avoidance to financing terrorism. The CEO of the Luxembourg facility, former French customs official Philippe Dauvergne, was invited to the hearing, but chose not to attend.

The October hearing, which saw Luxembourgish investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of Le Quotidien Fabien Grasser detail how he had received threatening letters and phone calls after he started looking into the freeport’s management and shareholders, did not allay these concerns. The extent to which Bouvier’s freeports will be investigated by the EU is still uncertain: German MEP Wolf Klinz wrote to Jean-Claude Juncker in January claiming that the European Commission President is “morally and ethically obliged” to take action against freeports’ “crime blind spot”; Juncker’s dismissal of Klinz’s concerns caused the MEP to conclude that “there is no political will to seriously investigate the possibility of possibility fraudulent activities and irregularities related to” the freeport and its management.

What’s certain is that Bouvier—with his businesses under investigation by MEPs, his finances under investigation by the tax authorities, his business partners Olivier Thomas and Jean-Marc Peretti accused of art theft and links with the Corsican mafia and his former client suing him in multiple jurisdictions—hardly fits the image of a reformed, transparent Switzerland which Bern is pushing.

Don't miss our page on Facebook!
Click to read more