It might be difficult to feel sorry for an exiled Russian oligarch who: 1) ripped off his native country by cornering some of its most valuable business assets; 2) sold them off for$8 billion and with his money bought equally valuable assists elsewhere in the world; 3) who lives in a Monaco in what is believed to be the most expensive residence in the world; 4) who cheated on his wife of 24 years until she recently filed for divorce, and who, even if he is obliged to split his fortune with her, will still be worth $4 billion dollars with his wealth growing almost exponentially. Such a man is Dimitry Rybolovlev, an expatriate who crossed swords with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and spent a year in prison before landing in Europe.
Not only does Rybolovlev own vast holdings around the globe, he is also reputed to be “the owner of one of the world’s most valuable art collections,” (“The Oligarch and the Dentist’s Wife,” by Vicky Ward, TownandCounty, December 2015. pg. 219) And therein lies the tale, for not a single work of art hangs on the walls of any of his great estates. Like most people of extreme wealth, Rybolovlev warehouses his treasures in special storage centers known as free ports – or “art cemeteries” as some call them. Collectibles have become the asset of choice among the super rich because they tend to rise in value, are easy to move and to hide. (Ibid pg. 221) In such graveyards, great works languish for years, lost to the public and not even emerging at the time of sale because, among the wealthy, these sales are negotiated in secret to avoid paying taxes.
And therein hangs a second tale. Rybolovlev, who trained as a cardiologist, knew nothing about great art and being a stranger in the strange land, he sought an agent to negotiate his deals among Europe’s elite. Oddly enough, he chose his dentist’s wife. She seemed to have connections and was able to introduced him to people who mattered. What’s more, the dentist’s wife was happy to introduce him to a man who owned one of the largest free port operations in existence and who was willing to hide the exile’s loot.
Clever man! But not too clever, it turns out. As these dealings are “dark” and he knew nothing about the value of any piece he bought, he was at the mercy of his new friends. And his new friends fleeced him. How did he find out? He met a man at a cocktail party who mentioned he’d recently sold a painting at a considerable profit. Rybolovlev had been that buyer, unbeknownst to the man, and so the original owner had no qualms about revealing what he’d received for the work. As it turns out, the sum was two million dollars less than Rybolovlev paid for it. Apparently, the dentist’s wife and the free port owner had inflated the price and kept the additional mark up for themselves.
The case in now in court, but I predict Rybolovlev will lose. Dark agreements leave no records and his agent’s are pleading innocent.
Moral of the story: Money is fickle. It has no master; it will make you no friends, and is likely to turn those who possess it into fools. To live well, it’s best to tread lightly upon this planet, remembering we own nothing, not even our lives. Kindness is the best coinage to possess. That is all we need to know on earth and all we need to know.