Dmitry Rybolovlev. Photo: AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
The Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev used a company registered in the British Virgin Islands to hide art from his former wife Elena during their divorce proceedings. The same company helped Rybolovlev move paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh and Rothko, among others, out of Switzerland to London to keep them out of Elena’s grasp.

The revelation comes from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which has spent the past year examining over 11 million documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm specialising in wealth management and the creation of offshore shell companies. The leaked data covers nearly 40 years up to 2015 and provides an unprecedented look at the offshore banking industry and how money is moved secretly, and sometimes illegally, around the world.

The ICIJ has worked with the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and 100 other news organisations to analyse the data in what amounts to the biggest media collaboration ever undertaken.

The offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders including the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia and the children of the president of Azerbaijan have been exposed. World leaders who have embraced anti-corruption platforms such as the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the family of Chinese president Xi Jinping also feature in the leaked documents, writes the ICIJ.

Mossack Fonseca “has serviced enough Middle East royalty to fill a palace,” the ICIJ reports. The Panamanian firm also “has details on at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the US, including Mexican drug lords and terrorist organizations…Its fingers are in Africa’s diamond trade, the international art market and other businesses that thrive on secrecy.”

The art connection

In December 2008 Elena Rybolovleva filed for divorce from her husband Dmitry, who is now embroiled in a separate legal battle with his former art advisor Yves Bouvier. The Rybolovlevs were based in Switzerland and under Swiss law each spouse was entitled to an equal part of the couple’s wealth.

But tracking down Dmitry Rybolovlev’s assets was not easy. Mossack Fonseca had helped the businessman transfer ownership of many of his art assets to a company they set up for him in the British Virgin Islands, Xitrans Finance Ltd. This off-shore firm owned paintings by Picasso, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Monet, Degas and Rothko and “also bought Louis XVI-style desks, tables and drawers made by some of Paris’s grandest furniture makers,” the ICIJ writes.

“As the marriage broke down, according to notes from a court hearing sent via email to Mossack Fonseca in January 2009, [Rybolovlev] used Xitrans Finance Ltd to move these luxury items out of Switzerland to Singapore and London, beyond [his wife’s] reach.”

Update, 6 April: In a statement, the Rybolovlev family's lawyer said the "description and references to the divorce proceedings of Mr Dmitriy Rybolovlev are misleading", since it "fails to state that the ex-spouses Rybolovlev amicably settled their matrimonial dispute and announced in a joint statement dated 20th October 2015". He added that Rybolovlev "has never used any offshore entity to conceal any assets". Xitrans Finance was established in 2002, six years before the divorce proceedings began, and that its use "as a holding entity to constitute a remarkable art collection has been publicly disclosed in numerous publications worldwide and is perfectly legitimate,” the lawyer said.