To this day, despite their massive networks, neither Iljine nor Salakhova claims to know the buyer’s identity. The international press and art-world rumor mill, meanwhile, has trotted out the usual suspects: London-based oil baron Roman Abramovich, despite the fact that his purchases have been more lowbrow, most notably the Chelsea Football Club in England’s Premier League; and vodka mogul Roustam Tariko, who denied it to The New Yorker, saying, “I’d rather invest in my freedom, rather than in my walls.” In any case, Tariko’s flashy history suggests he would hardly have hidden the purchase. Same problem with oil tycoon Viktor Vekselberg, who in 2004 preempted the Sotheby’s sale of nine Fabergé eggs from the Forbes collection, offering a reported $110 million. The Art Newspaper suggested it was the more low-profile Alexander Abramov, a Vekselberg business associate; he denied it.
"I think it’s a totally new collector,” says Salakhova, noting that she has ruled out Potanin and Vekselberg, along with Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven of the powerful Alfa Group Consortium. It would seem extraordinary for a buyer to start collecting at the highest end of the market, but it’s not unprecedented. That’s precisely how Greenwich hedge-fund king Steven Cohen debuted as a collector—buying up major works by Van Gogh, Bacon, and Warhol.
Iljine suggests that, given the bidder’s unsophisticated approach, the buyer cannot be among the better-known Russian tycoons. “I know several oligarchs personally, and they’re not primitive people,” he explains. “It could always be a guy from Azerbaijan. They’re oil-rich down there, too. Or someone in Siberia. They’re not so intellectual, and they have hundreds of millions offshore.” Moscow’s fitness-club mogul Olga Sloutsker, herself a contemporary-art collector for more than a decade, also believes the answer may lie somewhere in the oil-rich provinces. “Maybe it’s like Texas—not-so-cultured people with a lot of money. But it’s a very Russian way: He has the money. He wants the Picasso. He doesn’t care about what the press or the rest of the art world will think. People say mean things about him, because the art world is such a jealous place. Collectors don’t like to be beaten—especially men, especially by someone ‘undeserving.’ ”
Chasing the mystery buyer, I speak with more than two dozen people on four different continents, collecting clues, speculation, and gossip. Several highly placed sources suggest the buyer is a client of the powerhouse Paris-based Wildenstein clan. Despite his denial, that suggests Abramov, a horse-racing aficionado who has popped up with the stable-owning Alec Wildenstein at equestrian events around the globe. Art-world gossip also indicates that the buyer has a London connection, which leads me to the ruthless aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, who bought a massive landmarked house in tony Belgravia and has reportedly been taking English lessons at the London School of Economics. Then again, virtually all New Russians own London residences or spend significant time in the city.
In an attempt to crack the puzzle through deduction and data mining, I construct a spreadsheet, including all 33 Russians named in the 2006 Forbes list of the world’s billionaires. Eliminating the usual suspects and those who have denied buying the Dora Maar brings my pool down to 26.
Then I get lucky. A friend puts me in touch with a very successful Moscow businessman, who claims to know the buyer but won’t reveal his identity. “He’s worried about bad publicity, because right now it would cause too much jealousy in Russia,” the contact says, explaining that time abroad has also taught the buyer about the negative perception of New Russians’ garishly flashing their wealth. When I tell him about the Moscow art crowd’s supposition that it’s some provincial oilman, he laughs: “It’s not an oilman. It’s a banker, from Moscow.” But he refuses to say anything more.
Still, this clue narrows my circle of candidates greatly. Of the 26 billionaires on my list, there are only six I’d consider Moscow bankers. The best known is Alexander Lebedev, president of National Reserve Bank, whose fortune Forbes estimates at $3.5 billion, and whose London connection goes back to his KGB-agent days. Then there’s Nikolai Tsvetkov, president of the investment bank UralSib, whose estimated wealth has skyrocketed in recent years to $5.2 billion. A former Air Force officer, he seems the type to have sent a lieutenant. Next come Alexei Kuzmichov and German Khan, both of whom are involved in Alfa Group alongside Fridman and Aven, although they are far less public figures. Finally, there’s Sergei Popov and Andrei Melnichenko of MDM-Bank, the youngest and “poorest” of this bunch, with fortunes that Forbes estimated at $2.7 billion each. Through an MDM spokeswoman, both deny buying the Dora Maar.