I was asked if I was a Russian oligarch by a man walking his dog the other day. As I was wearing Marks and Spencer’s clothing and had just parked our Volkswagen, I gathered he was joking. We were in Highgate in North London standing outside Witanhurst which is said to be the largest house in London after Buckingham Palace (which does not really count as a house – even the royals call it ‘the office’). As he was obviously local I wanted to check I had the right building. He confirmed that I had and continued walking his dog.
Witanhurst was built a hundred years ago by Arthur Crosfield who made his money from selling soap – always a good bet with the British, who like to keep clean. At its peak the young Princess Elizabeth went there to parties together with London high society but the family were unable to maintain the house and it fell into disrepair leading to complaints from locals about its condition. They might have done better to keep quiet. It was sold for £50 million around ten years ago and has been a noisy building site for most of the last five. I saw a team of workmen there but still no signs of occupation.
The house was bought by a company based in the British Virgin Islands called Safran Holdings but the real owner of the building has been identified as the Russian billionaire Andrey Guryev who made his money from phosphate. Like Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, he shrewdly worked the system to acquire his wealth after the downfall of communism. To do this you have to stay in the good books of Vladimir Putin. Guryev’s former partner Mikhail Khodorkovsky fell out with Putin and had to sell his share of the business cheaply to Guryev while he was in prison. Guryev meanwhile became a Russian senator but never made a speech in the Assembly or in public and has never given an interview to the press.
If a house is owned by a holding company, it costs £220,000 a year in fees. Most Russian billionaires are happy to cough up to protect their anonymity. Wherever the money comes from it is being spent in spades as Witanhurst is being transformed and is now valued in the £300 million area (a good area to be in). As is often the case in London these days, the growth is downwards as this is the one part of a building which can be altered without infringing planning rules. In addition to sixty five rooms, a seventy foot ballroom and glass rotunda the house is gaining a large indoor swimming pool, a cinema, sauna, gym and garage for twenty five cars. They don’t do things by halves these Russians. At least there will be a few London builders happy that billionaires are buying houses to keep them busy.