The Vast Scope of Russian Oligarch Roman Abramovich’s $1 Billion Art Collection Is Revealed in a New Trove of Leaked Documents
The leak of confidential information has likely set off alarm bells in elite art collecting circles.
A document leak of Cyprus-based MeritServus HC Limited, a corporate services provider, has revealed the staggering—and previously unknown—scope of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s massive art collection, encompassing more than 300 pieces that were collectively valued at $963 million in 2018.
According to reports in The Guardian and OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) which obtained the leaked documents from an anonymous third party, Abramovich built a collection with his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova that includes major works by Francis Bacon, Edgar Degas, Peter Doig, Lucian Freud, Alberto Giacometti, Antony Gormley, Henry Moore, David Hockney, Kazimir Malevich, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Paula Rego, and many more.
Perhaps the most glaring aspect of the reports is the fact that, in February 2022, just days after U.K. authorities warned Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin and the Kremlin that an invasion of Ukraine could prompt sanctions, the Cyprus trust that held Abramovich’s art collection was restructured to reduce his share below the “crucial” threshold of 50 percent.
According to the Guardian: “via a ‘deed of amendment,’ Zhukova became ‘irrevocably entitled to 51 percent’ of the trust’s distributions, the documents state. Abramovich was relegated to a minority beneficiary with 49 percent. A subsequent deed, from late February, barred Abramovich from increasing his interest.”
Less than a month later, on March 10, Abramovich was hit with sanctions by U.K. authorities, which led to an asset freeze that included his Chelsea football club. This was followed by sanctions by the EU. Abramovich has not been sanctioned by the U.S.
Under EU, U.K., and U.S. rules, any asset that is more than 50 percent owned by a sanctioned individual can be frozen.
The report noted that the deed amendment did not require Zhukova’s knowledge or consent. Zhukova, who currently lives in New York, is a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has publicly condemned Russia’s “acts of war” in Ukraine, but declined to comment for the Guardian report.
Among the eight-figure works in the collection is Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), which broke records when it was sold to Abramovich in 2008 for £17 million ($33.6 million) at an auction at Christie’s London.
In 2014, the painting was moved from storage for display at Abramovich’s Kensington Palace Gardens mansion in London. The work was loaned to a show at the National Portrait Gallery in 2012. According to the report, other works were sent for display and “private enjoyment” to additional homes he owned in England and the South of France, as well as to his $700 million yacht Eclipse. The day after buying Freud’s Benefits Supervisor, Abramovich splashed out again, snapping up Francis Bacon’s Triptych at Sotheby’s for $86 million. “At least 10 pieces in the collection were either bought for, or valued at, more than $25 million,” according to the report.
The Guardian noted that in 2011, according to the leaked documents, top advisor Sandy Heller’s firm was hired by Abramovich’s Cyprus-based Harmony Trust on an annual $500,000-a-year retainer, starting a relationship that would endure for six years. Heller did not comment to the Guardian.
The story highlighted another top work, Kazemir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition (1919–20) that was put up for auction in May 2000 at Phillips New York, after the Museum of Modern Art in New York “was forced to hand it back” following the artist’s heirs’ efforts in the wake of his persecution under Stalin’s reign. The Malevich sold for just over $17 million though the buyer at the time was not disclosed. By at least 2013, it was in Abramovich’s hands. In 2014, the painting was loaned to Tate Modern for a retrospective with the wall label indicating it was sourced from a private collection.
The more recent movements of the Malevich were revealed by invoices for transportation to and from London warehouses including specialty handler Martinspeed, which was acquired by Crozier Fine Arts in 2021. A representative for Crozier did not immediately respond to Artnet News’s request for comment, but news of the leak—and detailed formerly confidential information such as this—has undoubtedly set off alarm bells among major collectors and targeted Russian oligarchs hoping to keep their art holdings under wraps.
A Crozier representative told the Guardian: “Crozier is a long-established company with global operations. It is our policy and practice to comply with the laws in the countries where we do business.”
The report also mentions Cy Twombly’s Untitled Roma (1962), along with works by Frank Auerbach and sought-after painter Peter Doig. Picasso’s La Liseuse (1921) was reportedly acquired for just over $8 million in June 2010 at Christie’s London.
According to a statement by U.K. authorities about sanctioned oligarchs published in March 2022: “Roman Abramovich has stakes in steel giant Evraz, Norilsk Nickel, and owns Chelsea FC. He sold a 73 percent stake in Russian oil firm Sibneft to state-owned gas titan Gazprom for £9.87 billion in 2005. His net worth is an estimated £9.4 billion. He is one of the few oligarchs from the 1990s to maintain prominence under Putin.”
U.K. authorities did not immediately respond to questions about the potential consequences or impact of the latest revelations or whether it plans to take action on the new information. According to OCCRP: “A database of art owned by Russian oligarchs compiled by the Ukrainian government and targeted for seizure includes only four works related to Abramovich—a far cry from the collection now revealed.”
Earlier, OCCRP and the Guardian revealed details of how MeritServus appeared to have continued to work for Abramovich even after the invasion of Ukraine. The company was subsequently sanctioned by the U.K. government.
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