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Sotheby's defeats Russian oligarch in art fraud case

FILE PHOTO: Monaco president Dmitry Rybolovlev in the stands

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal jury on Tuesday ruled in favor of Sotheby's at a trial in which the Russian billionaire oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev accused the auction house of defrauding him out of tens of millions of dollars in art sales.

Rybolovlev accused Sotheby's of conspiring with Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier to trick him into paying inflated prices for four works including "Salvator Mundi," a depiction of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that would become the most expensive artwork sold at auction.

Sotheby's, which is privately held, had long maintained that it had no knowledge that Bouvier might have lied, and that it was not liable for his dealings with Rybolovlev.

Bouvier was not a defendant, and has maintained he did nothing wrong.

Rybolovlev, 57, is worth $6.4 billion after building his fortune in potash fertilizer, according to Forbes magazine. He is also majority owner of the AS Monaco soccer team, though has been reported this year to be exploring a sale.

Daniel Kornstein, a lawyer for Rybolovlev, said the case "achieved our goal of shining a light on the lack of transparency that plagues the art market. That secrecy made it difficult to prove a complex aiding and abetting fraud case."

Sotheby's said the verdict reaffirmed its commitment to upholding the highest standards of integrity, ethics and professionalism, and reflected a "glaring lack of evidence" that it cheated Rybolovlev.

The case has been among the highest-profile art fraud disputes in recent years, offering a view into an often secretive industry where wealthy buyers sometimes don't know who they are buying from.

Jurors in Manhattan federal court needed less than a day to reach a verdict, in a trial that lasted about three weeks.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman had last March let Rybolovlev pursue fraud-based claims over the da Vinci, and works by Gustav Klimt, Rene Magritte and Amedeo Modigliani.

Rybolovlev originally sued over 15 pieces of world-class art for which he paid more than $1 billion, and accused Bouvier of charging hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden markups.

Furman dismissed fraud-based claims over the other 11 works, including art from Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Rybolovlev was allowed to sue over "Salvator Mundi" even though his ownership had proven unusually profitable.

According to court papers, Bouvier bought the da Vinci for $83 million in 2013 and sold it the next day to Rybolovlev for $127.5 million.

Rybolovlev went on to sell "Salvator Mundi" at Christie's in 2017 for $450.3 million, a record price for an artwork at auction.

The case is Accent Delight International Ltd et al v Sotheby's et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 18-09011.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)