By Peter Hobson
LONDON (Reuters) - The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) is creating a database of Russian gold bars held by banks in London to help prevent sanctions evasion by Russian companies or the Russian central bank, the industry group said.
Banks and the LBMA are reluctant to say how much Russian gold is held in vaults but disclosures by gold-owning investment funds show that hundreds of tonnes accumulated in London, Zurich and New York before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Numbers from eleven funds show around 7% of all the gold they hold - currently around 160 tonnes worth some $9 billion - is Russian.
The LBMA will make its data available to customs authorities and market participants - but not the public - to help them check that Russian gold bars moving between countries or owners were outside Russia before sanctions were imposed.
It said it had an interim database up and running but was working on improving access and simplifying maintenance.
The United States and other Western countries placed sanctions on many Russian companies and banks and its central bank after the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine.
London is the world's largest bullion trade hub and Russia is one of the biggest gold producers.
The LBMA blocked new Russian gold bars from the market but bars made before the Ukraine war can still trade. The concern is that Russian entities with pre-war bars could seek to sell them.
"It made sense for clearing banks (in London) to send to LBMA lists of the bars that were there before sanctions came into place," LBMA chief executive Ruth Crowell told Reuters.
Crowell said this was "so that when attestations are made that these bars were outside of London before the sanctions came into force, a customs official or whoever can ... ask for that to be validated".
The database aims to ensure "that as metal moves around the world we can more easily demonstrate compliance with sanctions," she said.
Four banks - JPMorgan, HSBC, ICBC Standard and UBS - operate vaults in London and Zurich and pass information to the LBMA.
Crowell declined to say how much Russian gold they held.
She said extra scrutiny was putting people off dealing with Russian metal and that other gold bars with Russian-looking Cyrillic script, for example those made in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, were also experiencing added checks and delays.
(Reporting by Peter Hobson; editing by Pratima Desai and Barbara Lewis)