Early on a Tuesday morning last fall, Ronnie O’Sullivan was running through the woods near his home, in Chigwell, Essex, northeast of London. It was damp and muddy, England in November. O’Sullivan, who is thirty-nine, loves the anonymity of running. About ten years ago, he discovered that it was one thing that truly takes him out of himself—more than the drink and the drugs and the antidepressants—and suspends the otherwise unavoidable fact that he is the most talented snooker player of all time. At the age of eleven, O’Sullivan was making good money in the sport, and in the past three decades he has won five World Championships and set a number of records while enduring a bewildering odyssey of breakdowns, addictions, and redemptions, largely precipitated by the imprisonment of his father, whom he loves, for murder. O’Sullivan is frequently described as a genius. But he does not see how this can be so. Most days, he feels like a fraud. His game comes only in fits and starts. He wins because the others lose. He has wondered for a long time whether he would be happier doing something else. He has moved nine times in the past ten years. ... Snooker’s civilized appearance belies its vicious and enervating nature. A snooker table is three times larger than a pool table and its pockets are an inch smaller. Even the most basic shot is a concatenation of foresight, friction, and various Newtonian laws. Players seek to control where at least two balls are going: the red or colored “object” ball, preferably toward a pocket; and the white ball, its rate of braking and spin carefully calibrated, either to stop near another object ball, so the process can begin again, or to continue toward some hostile district of the table, from where the opponent will be unlikely to score. The best players string together thirty shots in a row, in a hushed environment of thick carpet and dinner suits.
Bouvier is an opportunist. Pitch him and he will decide if he is in or out. “It is always a question of what I will earn on the deal,” he said. ... “When you buy, it is always to sell,” he said. “You always have the buyer before you have the seller.” ... He got the certificate a few days later and called Rappo. He asked her to set up a proper meeting with the Rybolovlevs at their house in Cologny. This time, Bouvier told me, he offered them his services more generally. He could protect them during their adventures in the art market, he promised. And he could also find them art. ... He was aware that the proposal was audacious. Major buyers typically build collections through several dealers and auction houses, knowing that they will be charged the maximum the market can bear. To protect their interests, many also employ an art adviser or consultant, who works for them and is paid a retainer or a commission—in the region of five per cent—on the works that they acquire. Very rarely are all these roles performed by one person. ... Rybolovlev assumed that the two-per-cent fee was Bouvier’s commission. He was impressed by Natural Le Coultre’s premises in the freeport, which put Bouvier in contact with the owners of expensive art works. “He had insider information,” Rybolovlev said. “He knew the collectors without intermediaries. He knew what was where.” ... “For me, I will be clear,” he told me. “If I buy for two and I can sell for eleven, I will sell for eleven.” ... A freeport offers few tax advantages and scarcely any security features that a standard bonded warehouse cannot provide. But Bouvier’s development in Singapore carried within it two ideas. The first is that freeports will become hubs in the sixty-billion-dollar international art market, destinations in themselves—places for scholars, restorers, insurers, art-finance specialists, consultants, and dealers. The second idea is that the ultra-rich don’t want just another warehouse. ... One rival, who visited the Singapore Freeport and saw the Arad in the atrium, told me, “If a client of mine walked into my office and saw a five-million-dollar sculpture, he would assume I was charging him too much.” Others couldn’t work out where Bouvier was getting the money.