Imagine you’re a Russian oligarch with billions of dirty money to spend on art. What would you get? A Picasso, a Monet, perhaps a Leonardo? Works by all of these artists have been found in the collections of Russian oligarchs who have been sanctioned by foreign governments for their support of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine.
Earlier this month, Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP) launched War&Art, a database tracking artworks, valuable collectibles, and furniture owned by Russian businessmen, politicians, and public figures who, despite sanctions, try to “hide and launder their money” through art objects. War&Art was launched to help prevent “the circumvention of sanctions and the search for artistic assets of sanctioned persons” so that these assets can be frozen and eventually confiscated, according to an NACP statement.
Hyperallergic skimmed through the open-source database featuring over 300 art objects, examining their estimated value and reported owners to determine the art tastes of the richest Russian tycoons. Below are some gems in the database’s collection.
Let’s start with the spiciest — the most expensive artwork. Although prices are not available for all the objects on the portal, due to a “complicated” verification process and lack of official data, Mark Rothko’s “No. 6 (Violet, Green, and Red)” (1951) tops the list of the most valuable pieces. In 2014, it was sold at auction for $186 million at Christie’s to the Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev, one of the top 200 richest people in the world, according to Bloomberg. (Rybolovlev once owned Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi,” which sold for a record $450M in 2017.) As of now, Rothko’s “No. 6” is believed to be in the top five most expensive paintings ever sold publicly. Rybolovlev, who built his fortune as the owner of Russia’s largest producer of potassium fertilizers, apparently collects mostly Western masters, with other pieces by El Greco, Picasso, and Renoir.
The oldest artwork in the long list of assets turned out to be Sandro Botticelli’s “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel,” created between 1480 and 1485 and purchased by an unidentified Russian buyer for $92 million in 2021 — a rare find, as Botticelli’s works are not easy to come across on the auction block. A portrait, whose authorship was questioned for a time, currently awaits its owner to be revealed, if not for the art world, then for the International Working Group on Russian Sanctions.
The most collected artist in the database is Marc Chagall. A prominent representative of early Modernism, Chagall is a Belarusian and French artist of Jewish origin whose practice was highly regarded by the Surrealists. His works are listed in the collections of three sanctioned Russians, including that of Petr Aven, a banking magnate and associate of Vladimir Putin. Aven, whom the United States Treasury Department recently sanctioned, has the biggest art collection of all Russian oligarchs presented in the database, with at least 159 objects, including paintings, sculptures, and furniture centered around the Russian avant-garde, Post-Impressionism, and Realism.
Aven, who was ousted from the Tate Museums’s International Council earlier last year, has a peculiar taste in art. Among his numerous vintage pieces, one stands out as a notably whimsical example of Soviet propaganda — a porcelain sculpture set titled “Under the Sun of Stalin’s Constitution.” Created in the early 1950s by the Leningrad Porcelain Factory (LFZ), the set is dedicated to the adoption of the USSR Constitution in 1936. The piece is an example of exoticizing national stereotypes dominating the Soviet state narrative: Just as Christian saints are often depicted along with attributes and motifs that represent their life or death, the people embodying the Soviet republics are dressed in national costumes and surrounded by objects that identify their culture — a reap of wheat, sheep, a sunflower. Notably, the man dressed casually and bearing the Constitution text is, of course, Russian.
Unlike many of his counterparts, Russian hip-hop singer Timur Yunusov, better known by his stage name Timati, focused his aspirations on contemporary art, apparently aiming to amass the most massive collection of artwork by KAWS (Brian Donnelly). The son of an oil businessman and a vocal Putin supporter, Yunusov obtained at least 64 Bearbricks (vinyl collectible toys crafted in limited runs by Japanese MediCom in partnership with designers and artists) as well as Companions (a clown-like character conceived in 1999 and subsequently replicated extensively worldwide) by the Brooklyn-based artist. What else is in his collection? A Romero Britto drawing, a Zimmermann piano, and a marble bathtub.
The NACP database comes in handy to underscore the impact of Kremlin-backed money on art and the “artwashing” of politics. At the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, numerous museums severed ties with Russian fossil extraction beneficiaries, some of whom had served as board members, major donors, or trustees of institutions that shaped the international art scene. Last year, research by the Anti-Corruption Data Collective detailed how US institutions received millions from Russian oligarchs.
The NACP agrees: “Paintings, sculptures, and artistic jewelry — these are precisely the tools used as loopholes to circumvent sanctions,” the group said in a statement. However, it’s not just paintings aiding wealthy Russians in evading the consequences of their militaristic domestic policies — their roles as patrons and art supporters promoted by renowned institutions shift focus away from their political actions. Art institutions are now confronting a tricky dilemma: distance themselves and cut the Russian money flow or keep the status quo.
If you happen to know some Annas Delveys whose collections are up to be sanctioned or want to practice your open-source intelligence skills, the NACP encourages users to report these assets and join the database growth.