Poor Tanya McQuoid. The ill-fated White Lotus character (spoiler alert) drowned after losing her footing on cash-strapped Quentin’s yacht in the Season Two finale, but at least she managed to off its murderous owner before she slipped.
If such a debacle happened in reality rather than in fiction, what would happen to that vessel? Would it gain value from its notoriety, or become an 8,000-ton albatross that no superstitious .01-percenter would dare to charter?
At the moment, the high seas have fewer reputation-stained toxic yachts than usual. This is largely thanks to the oligarchs who haven’t been able to dodge and weave the sanctions hurled at their oceangoing toys across the world. German authorities have seized Uzbeki billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s Dilbar, the 512-foot yacht considered to be the largest in the world by volume. The $200 million super-yacht Royal Romance, owned by pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, has been sanctioned in Croatia. Last March, the Spanish government seized Valerie, a 279-footer on which Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck reportedly rekindled their romance during a summer rental in 2021, from the Russian general and defense contractor Sergey Chemezov.
“Since the noughties, super-yachts have gone from symbols of success to icons of oligarchy,” says Benjamin Maltby, a partner at London-based marine specialist Keystone Law. “[A seized vessel] would not reach the market price it would otherwise, because people would have reservations about it,” he says. “You’d absolutely know about the background, and it would almost certainly be sold through some kind of judicial process.”
That’s how Axioma, a 236-foot, six-deck super-yacht once chartered by Kendall Jenner before it was seized from owner Dmitry Pumpyansky, was off-loaded at a bargain-basement price. In September, it sold at auction for just over $37.5 million—around half its assumed value. Valerie’s reputation seems to have affected its appeal as well: in 2021, it was listed for sale at $130 million, but there were no takers, and the price was slashed to $97 million.
Even the charter world can’t escape Russia’s worldwide ignominy. One broker estimated that the inventory of yachts available for charter in summer 2022 was down 30 percent or so versus the previous year. “We’re staying away from Russian yachts right now,” says broker Kurt Bosshardt of Denison Yacht Sales. “One of our owners told us, ‘No Russians on board,’” says Daphne Tsevdos, the charter manager at SSH Maritime. “If you book a Russian and they get sanctioned, your boat might be up the kaiser.”
Given the investments involved, even the most scandal-plagued ships have found second (or even third) lives. The most notorious is the Lady Ghislaine, initially owned by the controversial British media magnate Robert Maxwell and named for his favorite child. After his death, it was bought by a Middle Eastern businessman, and after Ghislaine Maxwell became a household name for all the wrong reasons, it was sold again—this time, to an ex-wife of Maxwell’s fiercest rival, Anna Murdoch, who reportedly had no idea of its history. (Unlikely.)
Maurizio Gucci wasn’t put off by the cursed history of the Camper & Nicholsons–built 214-foot Creole when he bought it in 1983. A previous owner’s wife had died on board, and the man for whom it was originally built died not long after delivery. Maurizio continued that unfortunate streak; he was murdered 12 years later. It now belongs to his daughter, Allegra Gucci, and retains its status as the largest wooden sailing yacht in the world. It even appeared on the cover of Boat International in both 2015 and 2021.
Johnny Depp siphoned some of his Pirates of the Caribbean booty into the 156-foot, three-deck Vajoliroja (say it aloud with a hard “j”) but renamed it Amphitrite when he swapped out Vanessa Paradis for Amber Heard in yet another ill-fated decision. In 2017, it was reportedly purchased by J. K. Rowling and then resold the following year to an unnamed buyer.
Given the investments involved, even the most scandal-plagued ships have found second (or even third) lives.
Then there’s Christina O, the World War II–era frigate that Aristotle Onassis refitted as his personal floating palace. He tricked it out with unusual details, notably barstools covered in leather made from whale foreskins. Ari’s beloved only son died as a result of crashing the plane that had once been stashed on board, and once the boat was up for sale, it became tangled in scandal, too. The Christina O was initially off-loaded to a Greek-American con man, and then it was sold again to Ivor Fitzpatrick, the head of a prominent Irish law firm bearing his name. The Christina O is now offered for charter at $758,000 per week.
Unlike land-based real estate—the former homes of Harvey Weinstein, Bernie Madoff, and Jeffrey Epstein were unloaded at significant discounts—the valuation of yachts is not always affected by their backstories. In part, that’s simply down to the fact that establishing a final sale price is nearly impossible. “Listing prices are publicly available, but not the sale prices,” says Diane Byrne, who edits Megayacht News. “The only time I’ve seen the actual price disclosed is in the case of an auction, when they confirm they received the minimum bid.”
The uniqueness of most vessels, as well as the extensive refits most undergo over their lifetime, make substantive price comparisons with similar boats, or with previous sales, nearly impossible. There’s also no legal obligation for a seller to disclose any deaths or even damage on a yacht to would-be buyers, a dramatic departure from the rules governing home sales.
“It’s caveat emptor—take it as you find it,” says Maltby. In any case, he says, “if someone was murdered on the yacht, it’s very unlikely you’re not going to find some information online about that.”
When yachts change hands, they are often renamed in an attempt to give them a refreshed, if not entirely new, identity. Anna Murdoch abandoned the Lady Ghislaine in favor of the Dancing Hare; Creole has had three names since its launch in 1927. A clause in most sale contracts typically requires new owners to re-christen the vessel within seven days, although it usually takes six months or so to complete that re-invention. Replacing the nameplate alone can be a six-figure sum, while repainting the hull and replacing monogrammed towels, uniforms, and similar can surpass a million dollars. Traditionally, renaming a boat was considered to be unlucky, but most super-yacht owners seem unbothered by such superstitions. (Those who are can follow rituals such as scratching through a nameplate to banish bad juju.)
It can’t act as an oceangoing version of the witness-protection program, though: alongside its name, every vessel has a unique I.M.O. (International Maritime Organization) number, which stays with it throughout its life and is noted on the global register.
Ultimately, provided that the Russians aren’t involved, few prospective buyers care about much other than the vessel’s specs. “Yachts like these are not bought by people with small egos. They’re not interested in whatever went before,” says William Collier, who runs storied Scottish yacht-builder G. L. Watson. “For very many of them, history begins the day they buy it.”
As he says, Mark Ellwood focuses on “froth in all its forms.” He has written for AIR MAIL about the turmoil inside Moda Operandi. He is also a columnist for Bloomberg Pursuits, the creator and a co-host of Bloomberg’s Travel Genius podcast, and the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World