£300m art collector oligarch accused of breaching sanctions by selling luxury cars

Petr Aven seen with Vladimir Putin in 2010  (AFP via Getty Images)
Petr Aven seen with Vladimir Putin in 2010 (AFP via Getty Images)

A billionaire Russian oligarch with a mansion in the Home Counties and a £300 million art collection is being targeted over allegations that he has broken international sanctions by buying and selling luxury cars.

Two corporate bank accounts — containing around £1.5 million — used by Petr Aven, who has said that he spends all his money on art, were frozen by the National Crime Agency over claims that they were being used to dodge sanctions placed on him because of his connections to Vladimir Putin.

The alleged breaches include transactions used to finance a £200,000 payment to two car dealers and a further £160,000 transfer suspected of covering up the sale of a Bentley.

The agency claims these were among 10 breaches involving “very unusual” spending and carried out via methods including the use of a key associate’s accounts, the digital bank Monzo, and “money going round in a circle” to disguise its origin. Mr Aven, who lives in the multimillion-pound Ingliston House in Surrey surrounded by masterpieces, rejects the allegations and is seeking to have the freezing orders on his accounts relaxed.

His lawyers accused the NCA of “sloppy homework” by failing to tell the judge who imposed the freezing orders that the Government’s office for sanctions implementation had authorised the use of the accounts by Mr Aven.

Tim Akkouh QC, for the NCA, admitted that was “a mistake” but said that the freezing orders were justified because there was a “lot of evidence” to support the claim that sanctions breaches had occurred.

He said the alleged breaches began with a large transfer of money from an Austrian account suspected of being controlled Mr Aven into the corporate account of his home.

Other “very unusual transfers” occurred including on March 15, when sanctions were imposed on Mr Aven, when an associate’s personal account “paid more than £200,000 to two car dealer accounts”.

Mr Akkouh said the NCA “suspected that these transfers made purchases of vehicles on Mr Aven’s behalf or with funds that ultimately belong to him”. Mr Akkouh listed a series of other suspect transactions that had led to the freezing orders being imposed and told Westminster magistrates that the suspicion was that “the funds identified by the NCA were criminal due to their intended use in and origin from criminal activity, namely sanctions contravention and circumvention”.

Hugo Keith QC, for Mr Aven, rejected the allegations and urged the court to either remove the freezing orders or vary them. District Judge John Zani will decide later this week. Mr Aven, estimated to be worth more than £4 billion, was a patron of the Royal Academy and Tate until he was sanctioned.

Mr Aven was sanctioned first by the European Union in February when he was described as one of Vladimir Putin’s “closest oligarchs” and a person who” actively supported materially or financially and benefited from Russian decision-makers responsible for the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of Ukraine.”

The EU sanctions document added that Mr Aven “is an important shareholder of the Alfa Group, which includes one of major Russian banks, Alfa Bank” and  “one of approximately 50 wealthy Russian businessmen who regularly meet with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.

“He does not operate independently of the President’s demands. His friendship with Vladimir Putin goes back to the early 1990s.”

UK sanctions were imposed on Mr Aven and a number of other oligarchs on 15 March when he was described in similar terms as “a prominent Russian businessman and pro-Kremlin oligarch".

The two frozen accounts contain around £1.5 million. Account freezing orders can be followed by forfeiture proceedings if law enforcers are not satisfied with the explanation given for the suspect transactions.  Breaching sanctions is a criminal offence.