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White wash

11 June 2015 By Carol Ryan

Art world antics just keep coming. Dmitry Rybolovlev, the billionaire Russian owner of the AS Monaco soccer club, has sued his dealer and turned into an unlikely champion for market reform. And now a Canadian television reporter who moonlighted as an art broker to Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has been fired for not disclosing commissions. Greater transparency may only come to the opaque art world if collectors and investors push for it.

The latest scandal comes from Canada, where state broadcaster CBC on Tuesday fired host Evan Solomon over claims published in the Toronto Star that he used his journalistic contacts to earn commissions arranging sales to Carney and to BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie. The tech firm’s ex-chief executive told the Star he hadn’t been aware of any commission paid to Solomon.

The Rybolovlev family trust, meanwhile, alleges it was swindled by Yves Bouvier, the owner of a network of bonded warehouses, into overpaying for a $2 billion collection that included a $118 million Modigliani previously owned by U.S. hedge fund manager Steve Cohen. Bouvier says he did nothing illegal.

In another example, German dealer Helge Achenbach was recently convicted for defrauding Berthold Albrecht, the heir to the Aldi supermarket empire, by inflating invoices and commissions.

Unlike in many financial markets, there’s little regulation to force anyone to disclose prices, commissions and other payments relating to art. Private sales made up just over half the 51 billion euro global market in 2014, according to the European Fine Art Foundation. Yet buyers often don’t help themselves, sometimes doing multimillion-dollar deals without clear contracts or independent valuations.

It’s hard to sympathise with ultra-wealthy collectors, but opacity permeates the business at everyday levels, too. And a Deloitte survey last year found that 76 percent of collectors buy artworks with investment in mind, up from 53 percent in 2012. This increasingly financial focus ought to mean that more art buyers want better disclosure.

Governments have a high-level interest in areas like money laundering and might eventually regulate art transactions. But any immediate push for change may have to come from the people involved. If they want more transparency, though, collectors from the Rybolovlevs right down to small-time purchasers could start by being less secretive about their own dealings.

 

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