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The Hunt for the Red Collector


Just as I’m puzzling through which banker seems most likely, new information blindsides me: A reliable source, with impeccable art-market contacts, calls to say, “The buyer is absolutely not a Russian.”

“The Dora Maar sale was a turning point,” says Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer, “because it makes us realize a new person can come in at any time, unexpectedly bidding at billionaire levels.”

What? Has the art world’s search been focused on the wrong country? What about the Moscow businessman’s assertion that the buyer is a Moscow banker? My reliable source will not elaborate.

Trying to square this new information with my other clues, I go back to my spreadsheet. That’s when it hits me: What if the buyer is both “a Moscow banker” and “not a Russian”? Strictly speaking, “not Russian” means someone not from the Russian Federation, which wouldn’t rule out Georgians, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, or Kazakhs. This filter narrows my pool to only a few names: the Ukraine-born Khan—and two I had not seriously considered before, Azerbaijani oilman Vagit Alekperov and Georgian mining magnate Boris Ivanishvili. Alekperov—ranked by Forbes as the richest man living in Moscow with a net worth of $11 billion—is the least probable. Although he owns Imperial Bank, his prime asset is Russia’s largest private oil company, Lukoil. That hardly squares with my source’s comment that “it’s not an oilman.”

More likely is Khan. He has a lot of oil interests, but Alfa Group’s financial activities are highly diversified. And with an estimated $6.1 billion fortune, he can certainly afford the Dora Maar. Plus, he has strong London contacts and art-aficionado friends. Perhaps he caught the collecting bug from Aven or Vekselberg. But wouldn’t they have instructed him in auction-buying protocol? His art-world connections would seem to rule him out.

In the end, all my detective work leads to one man: Ivanishvili. No one better fits the clues. He took over Moscow’s behemoth Impexbank in 1999. He has no known previous art-market dealings. He splits his time between a rural village in Georgia, justifying the “not Russian” description, and Paris, capital of the Wildenstein art-market empire. Plus, just one week before the Dora Maar auction, he sold Impex to Austria’s Raffeisen Bank for a reported $550 million, so the Picasso might have been a trophy. Or an investment. Quod erat demonstrandum: Boris Ivanishvili bought the Dora Maar au Chat.

Or not. This whole process of deductions is riddled with potentially faulty assumptions. Given the recent price jumps for oil and Moscow property, the billionaire lists are doubtless outdated. And it’s possible the buyer is not even a billionaire; as Stanislav Shekshnia points out, a defining trait of the New Russians is their seemingly irrational behavior. Plus, the term “banker” could be loosely applied to virtually every Russian billionaire, since nearly all have a bank among their holdings. And of course it’s possible that the buyer comes from outside the former USSR. Sure, the whole art world charged off after Russians based on reports that the bidder “sounded Russian,” but Laszlo von Vertes, the dealer who sat behind him and whose family comes from Hungary, says his accent could just as easily have been Bulgarian or Romanian. And there’s no guarantee the lieutenant and his master hold similar passports.

Ivanishvili is an educated guess, nothing more. And the mystery of the Dora Maar au Chat may well endure for years. Such cases are common in the art world, where opacity and discretion reign supreme. As Norman points out, “It’s been more than a year, and no one has even guessed right about the Garçon à la Pipe buyer.” Likewise, no one knows where Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, sold by Christie’s in 1990 for a then-record $82.5 million, has been for the past decade. But the art-world guessing games continue. Everyone loves a good mystery—especially one worth millions of dollars to whoever cracks the code.

Additional reporting by Lauren Schuker.


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