Bernard Arnault, a billionaire collector and French businessman who was briefly ranked as the richest person in the world last year, is reportedly the subject of a money laundering investigation taking place in France.
The investigation, first reported last week by Le Monde, centers around Arnault’s dealings with Nikolai Sarkisov, a Russian oligarch who is not currently the subject of sanctions in Europe.
According to the Paris Prosecutor’s Office, LVMH, the fashion conglomerate that Arnault owns, bought a company held by Sarkisov for 18.3 million euros in 2018. LVMH also owns brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, and LOEWE.
The Paris Prosecutor’s Office said that the investigation was a “preliminary” one, meaning that Arnault has not been accused of wrongdoing, nor is he suspected of having committed money laundering.
Jacqueline Laffont, a lawyer for Arnault, said in a statement that the allegations within the investigation were “absurd and unfounded.”
Responding specifically to the allegation that Arnault had helped Sarkisov acquire a hotel in Courchevel, a resort in the French Alps, she said, “The transaction that allowed for the expansion of the Hotel Cheval Blanc in Courchevel is perfectly known and was conducted in accordance with the law and with legal support. The investigation, seemingly under way, will demonstrate these facts.”
“Furthermore,” Laffont said, “who could seriously imagine that Bernard Arnault, who has developed over the past 40 years the leading French and European company, would pursue money laundering to expand a hotel?”
A representative for Sarkisov told Le Monde that he had been “not at all personally involved” in the dealings subject to investigation.
The Le Monde report said that Sarkisov was being investigated for buying several properties in Courchevel in the fall of 2018. Authorities believe those properties were purchased through a company called SNC La Fleche, and while Sarkisov was not listed in connection with the transaction, that entity is thought to be his because it is reportedly owned by holding companies in his name. In December of that year, SNC La Fleche was acquired by LVMH, Le Monde reported.
Per Le Monde, the investigation into Sarkisov had begun in 2022. Tracfin, a French government-run organization whose stated goal is to combat money laundering, became involved and had initially recommended it to the Lyon Prosecutor’s Office. It was then transferred to the Paris one.
In a memo quoted in the report, Tracfin focused on why Arnault had allegedly acquired SNC La Fleche not long after loaning Sarkisov the money. Doing so, Tracfin said, can often be used “to conceal the exact origin of the funds, to complicate the transactions and the identification of the real purchaser, and to reflect a desire to conceal the actual beneficiary of all these transactions, i.e. Bernard Arnault.”
The goal of the inquiry is to “explain the need for Mr. Arnault to call on Mr. Sarkisov as an intermediary in these transactions,” Tracfin wrote.
Within France and far beyond, Arnault is well-known both for his business acumen and for using his vast fortune to buy and support art. He has used his vast wealth to buy blue-chip art and has ranked on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list regularly.