My Yacht, My Shell Company: Cheating, Divorce And Panama Papers

There may be only one thing super-rich men fear more than the tax authorities, and it's a wife gearing up for divorce. Panama has havens for that too.

Nicolas Richter

MUNICH â€" The divorce of Dmitry Rybolovlev and his then wife Elena was not just spectacular melodrama, but also a textbook example of the lengths rich people (in most cases men) go to protect their considerable wealth in case of a marital breakup.

Rybolovlev, one of the richest men on the planet according to Forbes, had not only tucked away his wealth away in tax havens but tried to literally hide paintings, home furnishings and a yacht to prevent his wife from being able to lay claim to them. The internal papers of Mossack Fonseca, a Panama law firm, document Elena Rybolovlev’s lawyers’ efforts to recover these items.

The material that Süddeutesche Zeitung received and which was analyzed by journalists from around the globe also demonstrates that the Mossack Fonseca law firm also offered their "cover-up" services purposefully as part of their divorce packages. Wealthy clients â€" again, almost always men â€" asked off-shore experts at Mossack Fonseca to hide their money from someone they feared even more than the Ministry of Finance, namely their spouse. The Panama-based company's advisors, fazed by no sort of interpersonal issues, duly obliged.

On some level, a divorce winds up as nothing more than horse trading. It is usually the lawyers rather than the spouses who will sit across from one another to hammer out the financial details. But the very rich try to prevent this situation from occurring by either arranging for pre-nuptial agreements to be signed, or for the experts of law firms such as Mossack Fonseca to "disappear" the assets by investing them in foundations and front companies. Explicit emails which were leaked as part of the Panama Papers investigation detail the involvement of the employees of Mossack Fonseca to aid their clients in carrying out such a strategy.

One note that an employee of the firm's Luxembourg branch wrote to a colleague came with a winking smiley: "This one should be an easy challenge for you. But don’t use your extensive knowledge for your personal goals ;-) Now: A Dutch man wants to protect a part of his assets from the unwelcome side-effects of a divorce (which is on the horizon!). What would you recommend? Can I use an old-fashioned trust fund to prevent the ex-wife’s access to these assets?"

Sometimes, but this is very rarely the case, it is actually the wife who wishes to hide her money. The documents discovered at Mossack Fonseca highlighted the case of a Peruvian woman who, as she openly tells her financial consultants that she had stowed her assets away in front companies to prevent her husband from discovering that she had inherited money.

Half the assets

In the case of Rybolovlev vs. Rybolovlev, fraud was never proven, but in the Peruvian case above, the mistrust between the spouses and the suspicion of off-shore money investment were the focal point. The Rybolovlevs had met while both studying medicine, and married in 1987 in Russia. The husband became a businessman after the opening of the Iron Curtain and started to deal in fertilizers.

Billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev â€" Photo: Francknataf

Dmitry Rybolovlev moved to Switzerland with his wife and two daughters in the 1990s. On Dec. 22, 2008, Mrs. Rybolovlev filed for divorce at a court in Geneva. According to Swiss law, she was therefore entitled to half of her husband’s assets.

The Rybolovlevs are, as stated by their lawyers, "incredibly rich." Mr. Rybolovlev ranks 59th on the Forbes 500 list of the world's wealthiest, and the couple's lifestyle reflected that position. Mrs. Rybolovlev’s lawyers, among other things, referred to the family's "impressive collection of modern art," including paintings by artists such Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Mark Rothko.

But it seemed very difficult for Mrs. Rybolovlev to unwind the various strands that was the entangled mess of assets and to actually get a hold of those that were rightfully hers. Dmitry Rybolovlev had, long before a divorce was on the horizon, transferred most of his assets to various trust funds, to, supposedly, protect his daughters’ financial future. But it was not clear whether the wife was now entitled to these growing assets as part of the wealth under discussion.

But what raised Mrs. Rybolovlev’s suspicions was the fact that the owners of the paintings, furnishings and yacht were, officially, three front companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. She was unsure if she had access to these items and feared that her husband was in sole control of these companies â€" and that these treasures could, therefore, disappear at any moment. These front companies had once been established by Mossack Fonseca.

It seemed clear to Mrs. Rybolovlev that she was only going to be able to get her share of the assets if she acted quickly and struck with considerable force. Only a week after the divorce filing in Geneva, three of her lawyers appeared before a judge at a court on Tortola, the main island of the British Virgin Islands, on Dec. 30, 2008. The lawyers thanked "her ladyship" for receiving them between the holidays and apologized that, due to the holidays, they were not as prepared as they usually would have been.

Where's the Picasso?

After this brief exchange of pleasantries they voiced their concern that Dmitry Rybolovlev was squirreling away the family’s treasures. The paintings, for example, among them Van Gogh’s Landscape with Olive Tree and Picasso’s Pierrette’s Wedding had always been stored in Geneva, where the family usually resides, but many of these had now been moved to Singapore or London. The lawyers also mentioned the valuable furnishings as well as the yacht My Anna, worth $60 million, and which nominally belonged to a front company called Treehouse. Mrs Rybolovlev, they explained, feared that her husband was going to move the yacht out of the Virgin Islands territorial waters or sovereign territory of Switzerland and take it out of her reach.

Picasso's "Les Noces de Pierrette" â€" Source: Wikimedia Commons

The judge in the end agreed that there was "a significant risk" that the yacht, paintings and other goods were going to "vanish" and ordered the assets of these front companies to be frozen for the time being.

Dmitry Rybolovlev is a media-shy man who declined to comment for the purpose of this article when asked. It was never proven that he committed fraud intentionally by hiding his assets from his wife, and he denied several times having done so. But cases such as these imply that that was the case. "The closer certain business transactions are in time to the divorce, the more likely it is that one of the spouses is trying to cheat the other," says Sanford Ain, lawyer in Washington.

Hiding mutual assets so as to not have to share these in case of divorce can, of course, be viewed as fraud, which incurs punishment. But Mossack Fonseca representatives have stated that they "regret any misuse of the companies we create or services we offer. Wherever possible we take steps to either uncover or stop such misuse." Still, the leaked documents demonstrate that the employees are aware of the fact that some clients wanted to purposefully hide money from their future ex-spouses.

It was never revealed how much money Mrs. Rybolovlev eventually received after the settlement in autumn of last year. But it is the service providers in tax havens who are the true winners of such cases. The local branch of Mossack Fonseca aided the Rybolovlev’s in hiding their money in the first place, and another law firm helped Mrs. Rybolovlev to recover part of the family’s assets as part of her divorce deal.

Lawyer Ain Sanford once represented a female client in a divorce case, and it cost $2 to $3 million to uncover and disentangle the web of front companies into which the assets had been poured by her husband. That is a lawyer’s fee not many are able to pay. If viewed rationally, covering up and uncovering assets, and their attendant industries, seems to be a very lucrative business.

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Pomp And Pirouettes: When Ballet Stars Bid Farewell

On June 11, the prima ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato bid farewell to the Paris Opera, under the gold roof of the historic Palais Garnier. It's an obligatory passage for Parisian ballet dancers of a certain age, a moment that is often happy, always dreaded and sometimes salutary.

Ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato performing at her adieux
Eleonora Abbagnato Official Instagram Account
Cecilia Delporte

PARIS — With one last look at Chagall's enchanting fresco, at the teachers who watched her grow up, at the stage that saw her blossom, Eleonora Abbagnato took her final bow. Never has a star ballerina's farewell been so dramatic, as her big exit was postponed by three cancellations due to a strike, and then the pandemic.

"I'm always positive, I think that destiny does things well," she says in her dressing room a few days before her "adieu." "I knew this evening would eventually take place!" This artist, who wanted to model her last dance on Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj, ended up dazzling the crowd in a tribute to Roland Petit, which nicely echoed her career.

"He is someone I knew at the age of 10, so it was important to me to perform a ballet by this choreographer. The last time I danced Young Man was for Nicolas Le Riche's farewell, I was four months pregnant! It all began with Roland, and it all ends with him." The ballerina has lost none of her taste for the stage, but there are traditions that forge an institution: At the age of 42, each Opera dancer must leave the premises with a final au revoir to the public and the company.

"It's probably less painful than in other foreign companies, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, where there is no age limit but you are summoned to be told that you are no longer in the shape you were when you started out," says the former star Agnès Letestu. But how will this particular evening be remembered, as a rite of passage or the beginning of a new life? "The farewell is both a moment of extraordinary love with the hall, the orchestra pit, the backstage area ... and at the same time the turning of a page in the history of this institution. Even if the phoenix always rises from its ashes through the appointment of a new star," says Brigitte Lefèvre, the Paris Opera's dance director from 1995 to 2014.

No faux pas when choosing the last dance

This uniquely talented artist deserves the same exceptional ceremony created for the departure of Elisabeth Platel in 1999 and Carole Arbo two years later, which was televised for the very first time. For these kinds of events, the star's personal life comes into play — family members are present in the room, children occasionally come on stage. A perfectly choreographed protocol is followed to a tee, mixing various speeches with the arrival of the Minister of Culture; sometimes a special distinction from the Order of Arts and Letters is awarded. Moments of grace are sprinkled throughout the evening, such as the improvised dance between Aurélie Dupont — the director of dance at the time — and the departing star Marie-Agnès Gillot. The festivities continue into the night, charged with excitement and emotion.

These farewells are planned two or three years in advance when the time comes for the dance director to curate the future program. Aurélie Dupont, like Brigitte Lefèvre before her, likes to ask the star which ballet they prefer as their parting performance and which partners should accompany them.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning.

"There are some dancers who don't want to say goodbye because they don't like it, because the program doesn't suit them or because they don't feel fit enough," says Agnès Letestu. "I wanted to leave the Paris Opera with La Dame aux Camélias. I had talked to Brigitte Lefèvre about it. Except my farewell was scheduled before the ballet was programmed, so I had to find another one, but I did not agree. So I proposed to her to come back and dance it one month after I left the company, which was quite unusual."

Among the most requested works are the legendary ballets Giselle and L'Histoire de Manon. "The stars like to start with love stories that end badly. Everyone wants a ballet with real drama, in two or three acts, rather than a little pas de deux," says Aurélie Dupont. Dupont's first choice, La Dame aux Camélias, had already been scheduled two years earlier for the farewell of Agnès Letestu, so she settled on Manon. This work, heavy with meaning, was Dupont's big return to the stage after a serious knee injury in 1998, when she feared she could no longer dance.

Eleonora Abbagnato performing her final "adieux" at the Paris Opera

Like going to the guillotine

As for the brilliant Karl Paquette, it was with Cinderella — a ballet dear to his heart — that he retired at the Opéra Bastille, Paris' second opera house while many dancers prefer the old charm of the more famous Palais Garnier. "The story is funny, the ballet very narrative — one of the most beautiful successes of Nureyev. I loved the golden costume, the scenic effects, the finale of the grand pas de deux. The strongest moment was my entrance on stage in Act II to great applause, even as the musicians continued to play," he recalls.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning, like when Marie-Agnès Gillot cried heavily before her final step onto the stage. On that fateful day, Agnès Letestu says she felt a very special sensation, strengthening her senses, from her vision to her hearing. "Everything was multiplied tenfold," says Letestu who, a few months earlier, had the feeling of going to the guillotine. "I was very stressed four months before, I was afraid of hurting myself and not being able to dance, of not being up to it, of not enjoying every moment, of crying," says Aurélie Dupont, whose farewell was finally a calming moment. "I especially remember the applause, people were shouting, standing — it lasted more than 20 minutes. And this love is only for you."

I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion!

Nicolas Le Riche, now director of the Royal Ballet of Stockholm, evokes a "very strong feeling of corporation, of belonging to an institution that we celebrate at the same time." He was the only artist to bid farewell not to a ballet, but to a "special evening" of total freedom, mixing pieces like L'Après-midi d'un faune by Nijinsky and Béjart's Le Boléro. On stage, tributes were paid in his honor by prestigious guests such as singer Matthieu Chedid and actor Guillaume Gallienne.

"I found this repertoire, which transcended the ages, very moving. I received a magnificent note from Nijinsky's daughter. It's an evening where everyone is allowed to be moved and to live these emotions, except the person who is leaving. I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion, otherwise, I would have taken a step on stage and collapsed!" he recalls. How long did it take him to prepare such a spectacle? "I feel like answering in the manner of Coco Chanel, who made her hat in two scissor strokes. 'But it only took you two minutes?" says a disappointed customer. 'No, Madam, it took me a whole life," she replies. The same way I drew on all that I lived through," says the dancer.

Group photo of Paris Opera dancers in white tutus dancing in front of the Palais Garnier, with placards in protest of the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age

Paris Opera dancers perform in front of the Palais Garnier to protest the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age — Photo: Maxppp/ ZUMA

To each their own swan song

While Laëtitia Pujol hesitated a long time before making her farewell, hoping to leave discreetly, others end up with departure full of pomp and circumstance, sometimes to their surprise. "It's a moment you think about all the time without really thinking about it. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it and wanted something intimate. This was the opposite," says Karl Paquette. "The director of the Paris Opera at the time, Stéphane Lissner, wanted to leave on the symbolic day of December 31. "I was doubly pressured because the farewell was broadcast in the cinema, and each of my movements was immortalized. On the last day, you are in a particular state of conditioning because you are saying goodbye to 25 years of career and nearly 42 years of life. You have to protect yourself."

When the farewell came, it was a relief.

Only Benjamin Pech experienced his farewell, an evening in February 2016, as a liberation. And for good reason: "I had a hip injury in 2014. I was diagnosed with rapid degenerative arthritis. To remedy it, I needed a hip replacement. My farewell was scheduled for 2016, so I decided not to have the surgery and continue until then. For two years, I held on by dancing practically on one leg and had to turn to a repertoire that was no longer athletic but theatrical, with compositional roles that opened up other perspectives. Isn't a dancer above all someone who comes to deeply impact the spectator? When the farewell came, it was a relief," he says.

The star had chosen to dance alongside Sylviane, an 84-year-old spectator and one of his lifelong fans, who was present during rehearsals, but unfortunately became ill on the day of the performance. Pech took his leave on a program that included Le Parc by Preljocaj, the very piece that gave way to his injury: "I have come full circle."

Bidding farewell to the word "adieu"

Shortly after his or her performance, the future retiree must pass on their dressing room to another star, a moment that is "both very sophisticated and archaic. There are the great speeches, which say that this house will always be yours, but in reality, it becomes otherwise," says Brigitte Lefèvre. "You close the door, you leave and it's over," says Eleonora Abbagnato. But how do these artists project themselves into the future? "What is traumatic is that we are heavily drilled since we entered the dance school at 8 years old, with a professional outline where everything is already decided. How can you exist professionally when you have garnered such admiration, even fascination until now? At 42, most people are in the middle of their career, ours is coming to an end," says Benjamin Pech, who has become ballet master at the Opera of Rome, directed by Eleonora Abbagnato.

It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens.

While many stars go on to create or run a company, many experience a profound period of confusion. "I was secretly hoping that someone would call me for a position, that I could be of some value, but it didn't happen that way," explains Nicolas Le Riche. "I had already enrolled at Sciences Po for schooling [in management and leadership]. I had to create my own opportunities."

To remedy this uncertainty, Aurélie Dupont now offers support for company members, offering them a skills assessment and training beyond dance. In the future, Nicolas Le Riche would like the word "adieu" to be replaced by the idea of celebration. "It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens." Because under the gold of the Palais Garnier, the stars are eternal.

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