Major U.S. Auction Houses Have Reportedly Been Subpoenaed as Part of a Federal Investigation Into Sanctioned Russian Oligarchs

The investigation is probing how Russian tycoons have used art to evade sanctions or launder money.

Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg gives a speech at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, December, 2019. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.

Auction houses in the U.S. have been hit with a new round of subpoenas as part of a federal investigation into how Russian tycoons and others have used art to evade sanctions or launder money, according to a Bloomberg report.

Issued by federal prosecutors in New York, the formal orders mandate that the auction companies turn over years’ worth of records related to sanctioned individuals, including communications and contracts. 

The move comes amid increased efforts to crack down on the international business dealings of wealthy Russians during the ongoing war in Ukraine. Bloomberg reported that prosecutors are asking about specific artworks and real estate properties purchased in previous years.

Individuals named in the subpoenas include sanctioned oligarchs Roman Abramovich, Andrey Melnichenko, and Viktor Vekselberg, as well as the Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky.

The U.S. imposed sanctions on Vekselberg in 2018, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Melnichenko last year, following the invasion of Ukraine. Kolomoisky was sanctioned by the US in 2021. Abramovich has been sanctioned by the E.U., but remains off American lists. 

Left: Petr Aven with Roman Abramovich at the Moscow Kremlin. Photo by Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images.

Collector Petr Aven with Roman Abramovich at the Moscow Kremlin. Photo by Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images.

Leading the investigation is the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York and the federal KleptoCapture interagency task force, which was established in 2022 to enforce sanctions imposed by the country in response to Russia’s military attack. The probe has not yet been made public and spokespersons for the Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to Artnet News’ request for comment. 

Major auction houses contacted by Artnet News did not confirm or deny that they had received subpoenas as part of the investigation. 

A spokesperson for Christie’s said in a statement that the company “cooperates and complies fully with law enforcement as and when we are required to do so.” Sotheby’s said it “fully cooperates with law enforcement requests as required to by law” and has “long-established due diligence procedures.”

A Phillips representative, meanwhile, said that the auction house “always complies as required under law with any government investigation” and that it, too, has “strict due diligence and extensive [“Know Your Customer”] measures… in place to ensure that no individual or institution targeted by sanctions are able to do business directly or indirectly through our sale rooms.” 

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