New York’s most expensive apartment, a palatial $88 million penthouse said to have been bought for an oligarch’s daughter as a college getaway, is now at the centre of the world’s costliest divorce battle.
It is billed as the world’s most lavish student crash pad - a stunning penthouse with panoramic views of Central Park that smashed records as New York’s priciest property when it sold for $88 million in February.
The palatial apartment atop one of Manhattan’s most prestigious buildings was bought for Ekaterina Rybolovleva by a trust funded by her father, Dimtry, a billionaire Russian oligarch who made his fortune from fertiliser.
Miss Rybolovleva, 22, a Monaco resident and keen horsewoman, is said to be intending to use the 6,744 sq ft apartment during trips to New York when she takes a course this autumn at Harvard in Massachusetts.
That it was larger than many college dormitories, more opulent than many mansions and sold at the full asking price raised eyebrows. As did the fact that Miss Rybolovleva would not even be studying in New York, but at college 200 miles away.
Now a lawsuit filed by Mr Rybolovlev’s estranged wife, Elena, claims that the tycoon, whose estimated worth is $9 billion, splashed out on the penthouse as part of a concerted international effort to hide his assets during their protracted and bitter divorce.
The apartment was bought from the wife of Sandy Weill, the former head of Citigroup, by a private company held by a trust that operates independently of Mr Rybolovlev, 45, for the benefit of his oldest daughter, according to Tetiana Bersheda, a lawyer for the tycoon.
But Mrs Rybolovleva, 45, contends in papers filed in the New York state supreme court that in reality her husband bought the property through a “sham entity” in breach of a Swiss court order freezing his assets.
“It’s a joke to claim that he spent $88 million on such a huge apartment so that his daughter can supposedly use it on occasional visits to the city when she is not even studying here,” said her lawyer, David Newman.
“You could fit her whole class in there. Imagine the student parties.”
The legal showdown over the deluxe dwelling is the latest stage in the extremely rancorous and extremely expensive split of a couple that enjoyed a rags-to-riches story after the collapse of Communism.
They are now wrangling over trophy homes across Europe, two empty American properties that cost $183 million, a $100 million yacht, a private jet and an estimated $1 billion furniture and art collection - much of it stored in London and including paintings by Picasso, van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Modigliani and Rothko.
Dmitry Rybolovlev and his wife had barely a rouble to their name when they met on their first day at college in the industrial Russian city of Perm. They married, aged 21, in 1987 and had their first daughter Ekaterina in 1989.
It was the fall of the Soviet Union just two years later that transformed their lives. Mr Rybolovlev was among the new breed of entrepreneurs who seized on the rock-bottom sell-off of state businesses to join the ranks of mega-rich oligarchs.
In his first foray into business he set up a medical company with his father, later creating his own investment fund and then becoming chairman of of Uralkali, the country’s largest fertiliser producer - a highly lucrative role that earned him the moniker of Russia’s “potash king”.
Threats of kidnapping and death, not uncommon in Russia at the time, forced Mr Rybolovlev to move his family to Switzerland in the mid-90s. He later spent 11 months in a Russian jail, accused of planning the murder of a business associate, before he was acquitted of all charges.
The couple had a second daughter Anna in 2000. But in divorce petition filed in December 2008, Mrs Rybolovleva claims that her husband’s philandering became increasingly regular, often involving parties on a yacht named after their second child.
The fall-out has been spectacularly ugly. Last year, Mrs Rybolovleva reportedly rejected an $800 million settlement that would have represented less than 10 per cent of his estimated worth.
The final deal seems certain to be the costliest divorce in history, although it will not be the first way in which the family has entered the record books. When a Rybolovlev trust bought Maison L’Amitie, an oceanfront 33,000 sq ft Palm Beach estate, from Donald Trump in 2008 for $95 million, that was the highest sum at the time for a US residential property.
And the newly-acquired penthouse at 15 Central Park West - a New York landmark in which neighbours include Sting, the pop star, Denzel Washington, the actor, and a slew of financial big-hitters - is believed to be the world’s most expensive property in terms of price per square foot.
It boasts a main bedroom shaped elliptically to maximise the views, skylit gallery, chef’s kitchen, library with a wood-burning fireplace, a study panelled in Brazilian rosewood, 17 wardrobes and a 2,100 sq ft terrace that wraps around three sides of the building. Mr Newman said that the apartment was part of a “spending spree” conducted by Mr Rybolovlev in contravention of the court order in Switzerland, where the couple had lived for many years.
The tycoon has also been pouring funds into the part purchase of AS Monaco, the football team in the principality where the he now lives, and an investment in a Cypriot bank as part of that operation, his wife’s lawsuit claims.
But Mr Rybolovlev’s representatives said that the US property was purchased by an independent trust, administered by professional trustees, as an investment for his heirs and was not covered by the asset freeze. His lawyer said the Monaco and Cyprus investments were all conducted openly and legally and not an attempt to “hide assets”.
Miss Rybolovleva is currently taking courses online at Harvard’s Extension School from Monaco while competing on the European show-jumping tour. Miss Bersheda said she will study on campus from September to December and will visit New York in her free time.
She and her younger sister, who still lives with her mother, have inevitably been embroiled in the saga.
“A divorce between the husband and the wife has turned into war between mother and the children,” said Miss Bersheda.
Mr Newman countered that it is Mr Rybolovlev who is dragging out the process. “His post-divorce filing actions are only compounding his actions which precipitated the divorce,” he said.