VIP 1: Abramovich buys trophy Irish licence plate


Roman Abramovich - Russia's richest man, owner of Chelsea football club and governor of a Siberian province - has adorned his trophy lifestyle with the crowning extravagance: a Kilkenny number plate.

For a mere £285,000 (€410,000), Mr Abramovich (39) has bought the "VIP 1" plate first owned by Kilkenny businessman Bill Finnegan in the 1970s and later - in replica, at least - by Pope John Paul II.

When it first became available in Kilkenny (which had the code IP under the old licensing system) in 1971, the much-sought-after plate was given to the founder of the Kilkenny Beer Festival, Bill Finnegan, in recognition of his work on behalf of the city.

"I think the licensing people in Kilkenny decided to give it to him because of all the work he did with the beer festival and for Kilkenny generally," his daughter, Sheila de Loughry, said yesterday.

Mr Finnegan moved to London with his family to take up a position with Gulf Oil in the mid-1970s and he brought his Jaguar XJ6 and its conversation piece with him. However, when he tried to change cars a few years later, he was foiled by bureaucracy.

"He wanted to change the car and keep the number plate, but they wouldn't let him because, technically, it was still an Irish car," said Ms de Loughry. "They told him he would have to destroy the chassis, but he couldn't afford that."

By now the plate had made a high profile for itself, having inspired a replica made for the (unlicensed) Popemobile when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979.

With a heavy heart but a heavier wallet, Mr Finnegan sold car and plate for £5,500, only to see it fetch £92,000 at auction in 1989. Mr Abramovich's £285,000 makes it the most expensive number plate in the world.

"Poor old Bill, it was always someone else that benefited," said Ms de Loughry. "He was so pleased to have it - it was such an honour for him - and he was really disappointed to lose it."

Mr Abramovich's spokesman declined to comment.