An Oligarch Buys an Island—for His Art?

What’s next for the man ranked by Forbes as the 50th richest on the planet? Possibly his own museum. Sign

What’s next for the man ranked by Forbes as the 50th richest on the planet? Possibly his own museum.

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The investment company of art collector and Russian businessman Roman Abramovich has won a tender for New Holland, an 18-acre, long-derelict island adjacent to St. Petersburg. Mr. Abramovich, 41, won’t technically own the island, a former military base, but he has committed to invest at least 12 billion rubles (almost $400 million) into “restoring the historic buildings on the island as well as some new construction,” said Mr. Abramovich’s spokesman, John Mann. The proposal includes space for offices, apartments, a hotel and art galleries.

The project is huge, but the profile of the billionaire (and Chelsea soccer team owner) is already so considerable in Russia that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called on him earlier this week to help finance a 2018 World Cup bid in Russia. A memo also appeared on WikiLeaks recently that linked the two men’s finances. But that’s not what’s got the art lovers excited.

Art dealers who’ve done business with Mr. Abramovich said the New Holland development might include a museum–one where his fast-growing art collection could make a public appearance. Such rumors are delighting art-market players, since the pressure and challenge of building a world-class museum would likely keep the billionaire buying at the top of the market–his purchases have often set artists’ records.

“At the moment, we’re just getting started” with the project, said Mr. Mann, who declined to confirm plans for a museum. “The next step is to hold a contest for architects to come up with the master plan.”

Mr. Abromavich, whose net worth is estimated at $11.2 billion, emerged as a force on the auction circuit about five years ago. In two days in 2008, he spent $120 million at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Prizes included a painting by Lucian Freud–still the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold–and a Francis Bacon triptych, a record also for that artist.

Many attribute his new lust for art to his girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova, 29, recently spotted shopping at Art Basel Miami Beach, where she co-hosted a dinner with Larry Gagosian and Wendi Murdoch. She began dating Mr. Abramovich around 2006. A son, the youngest of Mr. Abramovich’s six children, was born last year.  The big-eyed, brown-haired beauty is on the board of trustees at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and, in 2008, founded the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow.

The Garage was partially funded by Mr. Abramovich, though additional funds came from private donations and corporate sponsorship. (Ms. Zhukova is independently wealthy.) The opening party featured a performance by Lady Gaga and boasted Ronald Lauder, Steven A. Cohen (collectors Mr. Abramovich has sometimes outbid at auction), Jeff Koons and Mr. Gagosian as guests. The fact that the GCCC does not intend to have a permanent collection has fueled speculation that the pair might be looking for a place to display their personal holdings.

But art lovers won’t be invited to any opening for some time. The entire construction project, said Mr. Mann, will take an estimated seven years to complete.


An Oligarch Buys an Island—for His Art?