This is ‘the largest overview in years of one of the most important pioneers of abstract art: Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935)’. The Stedelijk Museum enthusiastically promoted its new collection in 2013, and indeed, it is quite an impressive collection of paintings that visitors can see there.
Even the canvas “Suprematist Composition circa 1919-1920,” one of Malevich’s significant avant-garde works, is briefly on display in Amsterdam. Who the current owner of the work is? From whom the Stedelijk has been allowed to borrow it? Visitors cannot see that. The label only says ‘private collection.’
It is only now, ten years later, that it is revealed from whose private collection the work came at the time: that of Roman Abramovich. The well-known and somewhat ‘westernized’ oligarch, who lives in London and until recently also owned the Chelsea football club, appears to have a massive art collection that includes this work by the Russian avant-garde artist.
It’s all in the Oligarch Files, the leaked records of a financial service provider in Cyprus that Abramovich had many companies with as clients. The leaked documents are in the possession of The Guardian, which subsequently shared them with wider public. It also appears from them that Abramovich took steps just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine to reduce his control over the artworks, possibly because he feared sanctions against him and his assets.
“Suprematist Composition” was always on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, but it returned to the art market in 1999 when Malevich’s heirs managed to reclaim his work. They claimed that the museum had purchased the works from an art dealer who at the time had no right to sell them. Subsequently, “Suprematist Composition” was auctioned in 2000 and occasionally appeared in museums, such as the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (in 2013-2014) and the Tate Modern in London (in 2014). The Stedelijk Museum claims that in 2013, they did know who owned the work and, as is customary with loans, allowed the owner to determine how the provenance was mentioned, which in this case was stated as ‘private collection.’
Moreover, it wasn’t illegal. Abramovich has since been heavily sanctioned in the European Union and the United Kingdom, partly due to his close relationship with President Putin. However, in 2013, it was a different time in terms of sanctions, long before the war in Ukraine and even before the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Abramovich, like many other oligarchs, became wealthy after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in his case through a highly lucrative investment in the oil company Sibneft. At the beginning of this century, he purchased the London football club Chelsea and expanded his art collection. He also owns works by artists such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, Wassily Kandinsky, Rene Magritte, Damien Hirst, and Piet Mondrian (“Composition with Red Blue and Grey”). The leaked documents suggest that his collection in 2018 included more than 360 works and was worth nearly a billion dollars. Experts praise the high quality of the collection, indicating that he appears to be a genuine art enthusiast.
Most of his art is usually stored in warehouses, but occasionally he likes to display it in one of his homes or super-yachts. And very rarely, he loans them to museums – in the Netherlands, in addition to the Stedelijk in 2013, he also lent them to the Frans Hals Museum and the Van Abbemuseum. It’s precisely because of these loans that the artworks appear in the leaked data. The art is technically owned by one of Abramovich’s shell companies, Seline Invest. This company conducted its affairs through the financial service provider MeritServus in Cyprus, where the leaked data originated.
The art appears to be of great value to him. Until at least February 2022, the paintings were held in the Ermis Trust Settlement, which includes the shell company Seline Invest. Both he and his now ex-wife Daria Zhukova were exactly 50 percent owners of this trust, meaning the art belonged as much to him as it did to her. However, in February of the previous year, there were increasing indications that Russia was planning an invasion of Ukraine. The US and the EU warned the Russian elite that a potential invasion could have consequences for them due to their ties to President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Just weeks before the invasion, the ownership structure suddenly changed by 1 percentage point, shifting from a 50-50 distribution to 51 percent ownership for his ex, Zhukova. According to sanctions experts interviewed by The Guardian, this likely makes it much more difficult for authorities to seize the assets. According to British sanctions expert Tom Keatinge, changing ownership structures was a common practice in the lead-up to the war, in the hope of keeping assets out of the reach of authorities.
Unlike Abramovich, Zhukova is not on European and British sanctions lists. She also spoke out strongly against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Abramovich did not respond to The Guardian’s inquiries about the change in ownership structure.
Art experts are concerned that collections like these may disappear entirely from public view due to sanctions. For the past two years, as far as is known, no work from Abramovich’s collection has been loaned for an exhibition, possibly out of fear that the artwork could be seized. Oleksander Novikov, the head of the Ukrainian anti-corruption agency, confirms to The Guardian that they do indeed want to seize the art holdings of sanctioned oligarchs to help finance the reconstruction of Ukraine through their sale.