Everyone has heard of the sale of Salvator Mundi by Leonardo Da Vinci for an astonishing amount of $450 M. What you might not know is the background of that sale, involving the previous owners of the painting the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev and his Swiss art advisor Yves Bouvier.
A story of crazy rich people with the background of Switzerland and Monaco, who trade art as a currency and which includes 37 masterpiece artworks, caught in the middle of complicated money laundering and bribery accusations, where no one was quite who they seemed.
I met Alexandra Bregman, author of the book The Bouvier Affair who spent years on that story and who presents it in all its complexity thanks to her expert knowledge of art history and of the art market.
I can’t wait to read the book, soon to be released and believe this captivating story will be a perfect scenario for a movie! Thanks Alexandra for sharing your story!
How did you start working as a writer?
I have written about art for a very long time. I studied English and Art History simultaneously in college, and I interned at Christies and at Gagosian. From there, I subsequently worked for an artist, at an art gallery, and had a pretty good handle on the art market then I started writing for Art Observed the following year. Art Observed was a critical experience, because it combined my preexisting skill-set with my interest. That’s been pretty much recurrent ever since.
When I went to journalism school, it was a culmination of my art writing experience. Upon graduation, I wrote for bigger publications, including Architectural Digest, the Wall Street Journal, the Art Newspaper…et cetera.
What is it like to be a freelance journalist?
It’s a matter of finding the right place for the right story, more than anything else as a freelancer. And being passionate about the subject matter, you know? I’ve been fortunate that I do have the flexibility, that I’m not tethered to one publication and forced to write what my section needs. If I’m really passionate about a story, I can send it to the right place and they can find a home for it.
I understand that you have Russian roots? Is that correct?
I just posted on Instagram about my great-great grandfather from Belarus. So yes, I have Eastern European roots. But it’s been many, many generations since anybody spoke Russian in my family.
I’m from a pretty widespread Jewish population in America of people who come from, quote-unquote Russia. You know, there’s a lot of people who if you ask, like, ‘Where are you from?’ they say, ‘Oh, my family’s from Russia; my family’s from Poland.’ They don’t really know that that territory was in constant flux. Within this category, my family’s been in America for 100 years or more on all sides.
You might have seen my piece for the Wall Street Journal about Chagall and Malevich in Belarus. It was special for me to write because I felt like I was rediscovering this part of my heritage.
It’s interesting to dig into these type of roots. I’m sure that the Chagall story was meaningful for you, for sure. The last thing I’ll say about that is, even though Alexandra is a very common name, my mother actually named me for the Tsarina when she was 11. She read about the Romanov Russian royal family in a book called Nicholas and Alexandra, and she put the name on the back burner until I was born decades later! That definitely colors my quiet obsession with all things historical in Russia.
And I see that you’re a specialist of Asian art? How did that come about?
I went to India after college, also in 2011. I actually had started writing for Art Observed in New York, and was able to maintain that while I worked in New Delhi as an artist’s assistant for…a fairly notorious guy. That’s a whole other plotline as to his reputation, but it was an incredible experience for me because he was an artist who was a fringe figure to a very important art historical movement, known as the Progressive Artists’ Group. So on one hand, I had incredible access, and on the other, I had my own time to explore and think creatively about Indian art in general.
When I returned, I worked for an East-meets-West gallery called Sundaram Tagore. Sundaram Tagore is a close relative of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote both the Bangladeshi and Indian national anthems. That was even more eye-opening in terms of what it really means to get a grasp on Asia. It’s a massive continent. So I had the Indian background, but then learned about Singapore, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Japan. I even traveled with Sundaram to Tokyo and Dhaka.
Throughout, I’d been publishing here and there, and soon began working with the Asian Art Newspaper. I still cover Asia Week for them, contemporary art and antiquities from China and Japan, and love to write about Middle Eastern Art.
I am often positioned as an Asian art specialist, but I have to say, being entrenched in that scene, there are people who completely expert in Tibetan deities or the nuance of a porcelain ware…and that really isn’t me. What I can say is that the Asian art world has been incredible training to look at things critically and to have a scope of globalized connections.
So now about your artistic career. You paint on top of your writing. How do you see your work as a painter? Is it something you’d like to develop?
I mostly paint to relax. Honestly, I was really surprised that I won a spot at the Ad Art show. From there, I just wanted to canonize it in the art world. New works are still available for sale upon contact, and I’ve been happy to share it when the opportunity does arise.
Now about the book that you are releasing The Bouvier Affair! It’s quite a fascinating story. How did you come up with it? You first wrote your thesis on this subject and from that thesis, you transformed it into a book? How did it work?
The thesis was 8000 words, and I spent the better part of my entirety at Columbia (which was a year-long program) pursuing it. I flew to Monaco during my winter term. I was pretty entrenched in those 8000 words.
I focused predominately on art as an asset class, and the investment capability of Modigliani in particular. It was called ‘Modigliani Money,’ and essentially focused on art as a trading currency. This allowed me to be very analytical about the nature of what had gone wrong. It garnered interest and encouragement, from a fellow journalist and even from one of my off-the-record sources.
But because some time since others had been covering the scandal in full once I started expanding into a book, and I felt like I could do more. As much as people knew about this incredible story, they hadn’t spent a lot of time drawing parallels to the artwork involved. There’s Modigliani, there’s Gustav Klimt (who’s work is on the cover), and there’s da Vinci, of course. I mean, there is some literature coming out around the Salvator Mundi, but there are 37 paintings involved in this scandal. I had—and have—so much to say about each of those individual pieces. Once I got more first-person testimonials, the rest was history.
Reading about all this type of dirty money story is probably what a lot of people resent about the art world. What is your take on the perception and the repercussions of this type of affair in terms of the rest of the art business?
This is truly that minute percentage of people that have more money than—I mean, the GDP of certain countries, at some point. It’s unbelievable. The Salvator Mundi cost more than the net worth of Taylor Swift. And it’s just one transaction for them.
So yes, it’s incredibly important to understand how that world operates to better understand the world around us. I think the way that the art market functions is not so different from the way other markets function: the stock market, the real estate market…just the way that things are bought and sold, and the possibilities for corruption, or just deviation. Because at the end of the day, this is a secret world. How much should it really have an impact on other valuations?
Take the cost of rent in New York, for example. There are vacant apartments in New York that are used as investment properties. These are incredibly expensive, and as such, they bring up the average value of a studio apartment for someone like me. That trickle-down effect is the same in the art market to a certain degree. If the art at the Affordable Art Fair costs slightly more in reaction to the way that these sensational auction values are hammered up and up and up.
So, to that end, I do think it’s educational. And in terms of corruption, yes, you can treat it like any other industry as well.
So who do think, or you hope, will be interested in your book?
Well of course I want everyone to read it, and I want it to be huge. [Laughing]. Absolutely humongous.
Do you think more like people who are already deep into the art world, or would you like to attract people who don’t know much about it?
Fortunately, there is already an audience who know a little bit about this, as the series of events has been widely reported. I hope that those people are intrigued by the additional information I was able to pull together.
It’s for people who are interested in art, because there is quite a bit of art history tying into the scandal. It’s for people who are interested in scandal, because they might surprise themselves with the way that this particular story illuminates an art world that they were unfamiliar with. And it’s for anybody who’s interested in character.
Undoubtedly, I am deeply familiar with the art world, and I’m absolutely fascinated by the art historical components of the Bouvier Affair. But a great story usually includes a good versus evil, good guy/bad guy, predator/prey, hero/villain structure. What I love about this story with all the art and scenarios stripped away is that it changes on you. It’s not so clear who will be the hero in the end.
Listening to you, I’m thinking, you’re going to sell the rights to Hollywood! Because it has everything to make a great movie.
Oh let’s hope so! It’s major. It’s major art; it’s major money. It’s very cinematic, because they travel the world—to some of the most beautiful places. Monaco is gorgeous. And I’ll never forget interviewing Bouvier in Singapore. I walked up and he was in Ray Bans in the sun with the skyline behind him. It was epic.
Right now the book is available through Kindle, is that correct?
Yes, the Kindle preorder page is up. That should be ready to go on April 11th. The softcover and book launch will follow.