Europe’s richest man Bernard Arnault in money-laundering probe

Europe’s richest man Bernard Arnault in money-laundering probe

  • Paris public prosecutor’s office investigating Arnault and Nikolai Sarkisov 
  • Probe concerns their activities in Courchevel, a ski resort in the French Alps 
  • Sarkisov said to have bought property for which Arnault allegedly provided loan 

The world’s second richest man Bernard Arnault is at the centre of an alleged money laundering scandal.

The Paris public prosecutor’s office is investigating financial transactions involving the boss of the luxury goods giant LVMH and a Russian billionaire, Nikolai Sarkisov, whose brother Sergey founded one of Russia’s biggest insurance companies Reso-Garantia.

The probe concerns their activities in Courchevel, an exclusive ski resort in the French Alps known for being a playground for the ultra-rich, especially rich Russians before the war in Ukraine.

Sarkisov, 55, reportedly acquired more than a dozen properties in 2018 at the luxury Alpine hot spot through a complex deal in which Arnault, through one of his companies, allegedly provided a loan. 

According to reports from newspaper Le Monde, Arnault’s loan was worth an estimated £16m, and the arrangement – which involved companies based in France, Luxembourg and Cyprus – allowed the Russian oligarch to pocket a profit of around £1m.

Under scrutiny: Nikolai Sarkisov (top left) and Bernard Arnault (with his wife Helene Mercier)

Arnault, 74, who is the founder, chief executive and chairman of Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy owner LVMH, has earned the sobriquet ‘the wolf in cashmere’ during his decades at the top and is worth an estimated £134billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

He and his family own 41 per cent of the group, whose luxury brands also include jeweller Tiffany’s and watchmaker Tag Heuer.

But the Frenchman appears to have landed himself in hot water with an unidentified official from the French finance ministry’s financial intelligence unit Tracfin telling Le Monde that the deal with Sarkisov could have been aimed at concealing the origins of the funds used for the property.

The Paris public prosecutor’s office said a preliminary investigation was launched last year and confirmed to Reuters that transactions involving Arnault and Sarkisov were part of the probe.

Arnault is reported to have a special connection to Courchevel because he learned to ski there as a child. Meanwhile, Sarkisov’s wife, Ilona Kotelyukh, has described Courchevel as ‘my oasis’, according to reports from The Times last year.

A spokesman for Reso-Garantia said: ‘The transaction was managed by a small investment unit which invests professionally in European real estate. It consisted of acquiring flats in an old building in Courchevel from various private owners, with the view to sell them later to a developer once the entire building was bought out. All transactions were carried out by French companies, through French notaries by French lawyers on all sides. This was a usual real estate deal.’

LVMH could not be reached for comment, but Le Monde cited a close contact of Arnault as saying the deal was carried out within the scope of French law.

But the investigation is undoubtedly a major blow for Arnault who lost a high court case in February against French tax investigators over the legality of a 2019 raid on LVMH’s headquarters. The raid related to a tax fraud probe linked to activities in Belgium.