Taxpayers Stuck Paying the Bills for Oligarchs’ Seized Yachts and Mansions
Assets taken from sanctioned Russian billionaires are costly to maintain as legal hurdles hold up sales; $28,000 a week to keep mold out of the Alfa Nero
FALMOUTH HARBOUR, Antigua and Barbuda—Two dozen armed police and five FBI agents fanned out across the harbor here early one morning last year. They raided the Alfa Nero, a 270-foot megayacht believed to be owned by Andrey Grigoryevich Guryev, a Russian phosphates magnate sanctioned by the U.S. for links to President Vladimir Putin.
Ever since, the $120 million yacht—nearly the length of a football field and outfitted with an infinity pool that transforms into a dance floor—has sat idle in this sleepy harbor. It’s a floating reminder of the West’s economic war against Russia and the difficulties in managing and offloading billions in seized Russian assets. It has also become a nightmare for this tiny country of 93,000.
Taxpayers of this cash-strapped nation are currently paying $28,000 a week to maintain the stationary boat, including the salary of an Italian captain and $2,000 a day in diesel to keep its air conditioning running. If it turns off, mold will spread through the vessel within 48 hours, potentially damaging its hardwood interior and the Miro painting on board. A skeleton crew of six—having eaten through the boat’s supply of Champagne, lobsters and caviar—toils to ensure the vessel can one day be sailed away.
“You take thousand dollar bills, tear them up, and just keep going,” said Tom Paterson, the dock master of the marina, making a ripping up motion with his hands in the marina offices.
Since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, dozens of governments launched an unprecedented effort to pressure Putin to end the war by going after his well-heeled cronies. The Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs Task Force, a multinational government group that coordinates on sanctions, reported in March that an estimated $58 billion of oligarchs’ assets, including yachts, mansions and investments, have been frozen or blocked because of their owners’ links to the Kremlin.
The initial impulse to make life uncomfortable for Putin’s allies by blocking access to their wealth has evolved, as the war has dragged on, into moves to permanently confiscate their assets. Yet freezing an asset doesn’t immediately give authorities the right to take ownership and sell it. In many cases that comes only after complicated legal efforts to show those sanctioned people committed crimes, a process that could take months or years.
European countries have launched more than 300 criminal investigations against sanctioned Russians. The U.S. Justice Department has a team of 50 officials building criminal cases it hopes can rake in hundreds of millions of dollars by selling sanctioned Russian assets, which in turn can be handed over to help rebuild Ukraine.
So far, the grand total from the assets delivered to Ukraine by the U.S. is just $5.4 million, the U.S. said. The U.K. hasn’t turned any frozen assets into funds. Neither has the European Union.
“The costs for Ukraine are huge, and morally I think it is a no-brainer that the party that inflicts that cost and a horrible war should pay,” said Anders Ahnlid, who heads the EU’s working group on frozen Russian assets. “But that has to be done under the law.”
In practical terms, it is often taxpayers who are on the hook for eye-watering bills to maintain a fleet of high-end yachts and mansions that no one is allowed to use while sanctions remain in place.
Efforts to bypass drawn-out legal proceedings in Western courts to sell the assets are coming up short.
Earlier this year, the Antiguan government, arguing the Alfa Nero posed a risk to its harbor in case a hurricane sank it, passed new legislation and seized the ship outright. This summer it tried to sell the Alfa Nero to ex-Google chief executive Eric Schmidt for $67 million. But a company linked to Guryev launched a last-minute legal fight to block the sale, and Schmidt got cold feet, according to people familiar with the matter. The Antiguan government is now trying to line up a new buyer.
Shoe-leather detective work
There is a long legal path between freezing an asset, which bans the owner from using it, and confiscating the asset, which means the state can take ownership and sell it. Being sanctioned isn’t in itself a crime. So the state has to prove the sanctioned person both owns the asset, which is often held by a maze of shell companies, and broke a law, which can justify having it confiscated as proceeds of a crime.
The U.S. is “leaving a lot of money on the table” from the asset seizures, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco testified before Congress in April. DOJ officials have asked Congress to broaden the government’s ability to turn over proceeds to Ukraine, including by expanding the range of seized assets they can transfer.
The DOJ has seized two megayachts it says belong to sanctioned Russians and is in the process of trying to confiscate them, according to officials. One is the $300 million Amadea that U.S. taxpayers paid to have sailed to San Diego from Fiji. The other is the Tango, a $90 million yacht that U.S. authorities say is owned by Viktor Vekselberg, a sanctioned oligarch with close ties to Putin. Vekselberg is accused by the U.S. of tax fraud, money laundering and using fake documents and shell companies to avoid sanctions and hide his ownership of the Tango.
U.S. investigators sometimes spend years building a case strong enough to take before a judge for a seizure warrant. That involves shoe-leather detective work such as poring over bank and property records and also mapping out connections and traveling the globe to talk to witnesses, said David Lim and Michael Khoo, DOJ officials leading Task Force KleptoCapture, which enforces sanctions on Russians.
“We still have to be able to meet our burden of proof in court,” Khoo said in an interview. A lot of the evidence and witnesses are overseas, “sometimes in jurisdictions that are not necessarily friendly to the U.S. And so it becomes a challenge to work across those borders,” he said.
In Italy, law-enforcement officials have seized at least four yachts and 20 luxury homes, as well as cars, artwork and other items since spring 2022, according to a list of frozen assets reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The Italian government last year earmarked €13.7 million, or about $14.8 million, to cover urgent maintenance costs of assets such as yachts and villas. The actual costs are much higher, Italian officials said.
“Our problems are the yachts,” said an Italian official. “If the war continues…the running costs could potentially exceed their actual value.”
As a rule of thumb, big yachts cost around 10% of their value a year to maintain, said Benjamin Maltby, a lawyer at Keystone Law, which specializes in advising on megayachts. Their hulls need to be regularly scraped and air-conditioning units run nearly round the clock. The crew also needs paying. So does insurance and rent in marinas.
Forcing owners themselves to pay for their upkeep is complicated—the sanctioned parties aren’t allowed to use the financial system to transfer funds without special permission from governments, which can take months or years to obtain. Some European countries such as Spain allow the sanctioned owners to move funds to pay their maintenance costs.
Selling a recently sanctioned boat is also hard, Maltby said. Many buyers don’t like the idea of a secondhand sanctioned boat for fear it might be reclaimed by its original owners when it enters a different legal jurisdiction. “A lot of these boats are going to be stuck in limbo,” he said.
“There is a market for yachts. There is no market for moldering yachts,” said Andrew Adams, the former director of the KleptoCapture task force, to U.S. lawmakers recently. “We have to take care to make sure we’re maintaining that value.”
The Scheherazade, one of the world’s biggest and most expensive yachts, was seized by Italy last year. But the €650 million boat has no publicly identified owner. Italy’s financial police have linked the Scheherazade to former Rosneft President Eduard Khudainatov but haven’t been able to confirm that he owns it. The anticorruption group of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny has raised the possibility it could even belong to Putin himself.
The 460-foot yacht is moored in the Tuscan port of Marina di Carrara, where it is being refitted, work that began before it was seized. The company that officially owns the boat, registered in the Cayman Islands, is still covering those costs, according to people familiar with the boat’s current status. What will happen to the Scheherazade once the refurbishment is completed is unclear.
Also stuck in Italy is Sailing Yacht A, a €530 million boat with running costs of around €1 million a month. It belongs to Andrey Melnichenko, a Russian coal and fertilizer billionaire. The 469-foot yacht has been stuck in the northern Italian port of Trieste since March 2022, when Melnichenko was sanctioned by the EU.
Like other oligarchs, Melnichenko is hoping to get his property back. Worried the yacht will suffer serious damage in the hands of the Italian state, Melnichenko has offered to pay for its upkeep, according to a person familiar with his legal moves.
The EU is currently negotiating how to make sanctions evasion a crime in all its member states. That could eventually provide a broader basis for confiscating assets, but it would still require proof of active evasion.
So far, the most high profile Russian boat confiscation was engineered not by a government but by J.P. Morgan. The U.S. bank successfully appealed to have the yacht Axioma sold at auction to pay off €20.5 million its owner, a sanctioned Russian oligarch, owed to the lender. The vessel, replete with a 3-D cinema, fetched $37.5 million at auction to an unnamed buyer in Gibraltar where it was impounded. JPMorgan said it received what it was owed. A court in Gibraltar still has to decide what to do with the remaining funds, according to a court official.
On a recent day in Antigua, the Alfa Nero’s glossy black hull floated in a largely empty harbor. Most of the other yachts had left to avoid hurricane season. On the dock next to it two security guards sheltered under a canopy in front of a red sign reading “Property of The Antigua & Barbuda Government.”
In the months after the invasion of Ukraine, the Alfa Nero had shut off its transponder to avoid being tracked but was ultimately located by U.S. officials. Guryev is the founder of PhosAgro, a leading Russian chemical company, and according to the U.S. government owns the second-largest estate in London after Buckingham Palace. Guryev is also sanctioned in the U.K.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control, an enforcement arm of the U.S. Treasury, said the sanctioned Russian bought the yacht in 2014. Guryev had previously claimed the Alfa Nero wasn’t his but that he used it from time to time. The boat is owned by a company listed in the British Virgin Islands called Flying Dutchman, which in turn is managed by Opus Private, a fiduciary services company based in Guernsey, the island in the English Channel. Opus Private in turn represented a trust of which Guryev’s daughter is the beneficial owner, according to court filings in Antigua.
The boat, which originally had a crew of 37, found itself in legal limbo. Its owners were barred from using the financial system to pay its bills or sail it away.
Opus said it had done its utmost to obtain the licenses needed to make payments for the vessel’s maintenance and to explain the position to the Antiguan government “to no avail.”
The yacht, meanwhile, spewed raw effluent into the harbor after its onboard sewage system broke. It also became uninsurable after the guarantees on fire extinguishers and other safety equipment expired and hurricane season approached. Most of the crew left because they weren’t being paid. A group of 26 crew subsequently filed a lawsuit in Antigua, which enforced the sanctions as part of a treaty with the U.S., asking for $2.2 million for unpaid wages from the boat’s unspecified owner, according to their lawyer.
A skeleton crew stayed on board and kept the decks polished while bartering vintage bottles of wine stored in the ship for basic foodstuffs. The going rate: two bottles of wine for one tuna, according to the captain.
In February those remaining crew finally mutinied, writing a letter to the Antiguan government saying, “We can no longer deal with this,” said Darwin Telemaque, chief executive officer of the Antigua port authority.
Without these key crew members, no one would know how to keep the ship running or move it in case of a storm, he said. If the megayacht keeled over, it would block Falmouth Harbor, a key financial artery for the island.
So the government decided to pass emergency legislation to seize the vessel, auction it, pay off maintenance expenses and keep the staff on board, retaining the surplus for the country’s treasury. The government of Antigua petitioned the U.S. Treasury to allow the boat to be sold, a move the U.S. took in June.
The chance to buy a top-class yacht at a knockdown price caused a flurry of interest. Telemaque said he got WhatsApp messages from as far afield as Algeria. Schmidt, the former Google CEO, won the ensuing auction with a $67 million bid.
A company linked to Guryev’s daughter filed a last-minute injunction to block the sale. The appeal was dismissed. The fiduciary company that controls the yacht then filed for a judicial review over the legality of Antigua’s sudden change of the law, according to filings. The case is ongoing.
Schmidt refused to take ownership while the legal battle was unresolved and dropped out, according to people familiar with the matter. The Antiguan government was hit by another lawsuit, this one from Warren Halle, a U.S. real-estate magnate, who had the second-highest bid in the auction. Halle argued that since Schmidt hadn’t transferred the cash for the boat within a stipulated seven-day deadline, his bid should be disqualified.
Andrea Maccaferri, the acting captain of the Alfa Nero, said he has no idea what will happen next. He compared life on board the stranded boat to a monastery. Lunch is served at noon, dinner at 6 p.m. sharp, cooked by a British chef. The captain said he constantly checks weather reports tracking hurricanes, which he fears could wreck the vessel.
Deidra Cochrane, 28, an office assistant at the marina, said the Alfa Nero is a source of gossip on the bus she takes to work. People don’t generally believe the government will be able to sell it, and if it does, they see little benefit accruing to them, she said. “It’s a boat that creates a lot of scandal and opinion,” she said.
At the Skullduggery bar and restaurant alongside the marina, a table of regulars drank vodka and fretted that Antigua’s decision to take on a Putin ally would alienate rich Russian customers who flock to the island in winter. “Don’t flick the tiger’s balls,” warned one.
When he ventures out to St John’s, the capital of the two-island nation, Maccaferri never wears the red polo shirt bearing the logo of the Alfa Nero he wears in the marina, worried that a Russian agent may target him.
Whoever one day sails the Alfa Nero out of port, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a submarine with a red star waiting for it,” he said.
Sadie Gurman and Laurence Norman contributed to this article.