Art of the Deal: Feds Issue Subpoenas to US Auction Houses as Part of Investigation Into Oligarchs

On February 1st, Ukrainian officials executed a raid on the home of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, purportedly as part of an effort to tackle corruption ahead of the E.U. Summit. As we reported, the timing of the raid was interesting, particularly given Kolomoisky’s prior support of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his ties to PrivatBank and Burisma. Following the raid, E.U. officials praised Ukrainian efforts to clean up corruption.


Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said during a press conference with president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday that she was “comforted” by signs that the country’s anti-corruption bodies had expanded their operations.

“I commend you on reacting so rapidly at the political level to make sure the fight against corruption is delivering tangible results and is further stepped up,” she told Zelenskyy.

Having done a bit of a dive into Kolomoisky in connection with my prior reporting, I was curious as to what developments have unfolded since the raid. As it turns out, there’s an interesting twist and tie-in on the part of the U.S. — a number of U.S. auction houses have been hit with subpoenas as federal officials probe their role in how sanctioned oligarchs — Russians, in particular — may have used art dealing to launder money.

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.


As yet, the specific auction houses included in the probe have not been identified. The Art Newspaper has some additional background on the sanctioned individuals involved in the investigation:

Abramovich, who co-founded the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art with his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova, was an early inclusion on the UK government and EU’s lists of sanctioned oligarchs. He is believed to be the buyer of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud paintings that sold for record prices at auction in 2008—respectively, $86.3m and $33.6m (including fees). Shortly after Abramovich was placed on sanctions lists last March, Vekselberg—first sanctioned by the US in April 2018—was hit with a new round of restrictions by the US, then the UK. The Tate also severed ties with Vekselberg, a patron of the museum, that month.

As probes into auction houses continue, US authorities are seeking to extradite one UK businessman suspected of unlawfully transferring art to help a Russian oligarch evade sanctions. In October 2022, the businessman, Graham Bonham-Carter, was indicted for allegedly attempting to ship more than a dozen works of art belonging to Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska out of the US to London in 2021. According to the Department of Justice, an unnamed auction house had advised Bonham-Carter that it had reason to believe the artwork belonged to Deripaska; the businessmen falsely denied the ownership as well as the source of a payment made to ship the art.

Bonham-Carter faces three counts of conspiring to violate and evade US sanctions, one count of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and one count of wire fraud. Each carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.


(In case that last name rings a bell, yes, Graham Bonham-Carter is related to actress Helena Bonham-Carter — he’s her second cousin.)

Fascinating, too, that Oleg Deripaska’s name keeps popping up. As we reported in January, Charles McGonigal, the former Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, was arrested for allegedly taking payments from Deripaska to investigate another Russian oligarch that Deripaska was targeting. Then, earlier in February, came the report that Hunter Biden purportedly attempted to sell intel on Russian oligarchs, including Deripaska.

The New York Post has the report.

Documents dating back to 2011 on his notorious “laptop from hell” showed Hunter offered to sell intelligence on Russian oligarchs to the US aluminum firm Alcoa Inc. for $55,000, according to The Post’s exclusive October 2021 report.

As his father served as former President Barack Obama’s second-in-command, Hunter Biden offered to provide a “statistical analysis of political and corporate risks, elite networks associated with Oleg Deripaska, the Russian CEO of Basic Element company and United company RUSAL,” which had just signed a metal supply agreement with Alcoa.

Hunter Biden also offered the company a “list of elites of similar rank in Russia, map of [Deripaska’s] networks based on frequency of interaction with selected elites and countries.”

The deeply detailed proposal has come under sharp scrutiny given recent revelations that Hunter Biden had access to the Delaware lake-front home where secret papers from his father’s time as vice president were discovered in a garage, basement and library — combined with Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives.

The obvious question is how Hunter Biden had detailed intelligence on Russian oligarchs, including a map of Oleg Deripaska’s networks. That’s the kind of thing a normal American would not have, no matter how connected. On the contrary, it’s the kind of information that would take a government intelligence apparatus to produce and that you’d find in classified intelligence briefings.


Obviously, it remains to be seen where these investigations will lead (and how much will be reported), but RedState will continue to monitor and provide updates as they become available.


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