When Lily Safra wasn’t endowing chairs at prestigious universities, she was selling them in the gilded rooms of Sotheby’s. Safra had become extremely wealthy through her marriages and gave away her good fortune as a philanthropist and art collector, with a particular taste for pre-revolutionary France. In 2005, an auction of the contents of one of her homes, from Fabergé handles to Georgian urns, raised $49 million.
This sale, said Mario Tavella, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, who was asked by Safra to organize the auction, sums up her determination and charisma quite well. The art lover, who has died aged 87, focused on every detail of the sale, from the color arrangements in the promotional images to the box containing the catalogues, because “she had a very clear vision and wanted to ensure . . . [it] was fully developed and delivered”. Tavela added that “she was firm but never rude.” After the sale, she buys one iPod each for the dozens of employees who work on it.
Born Lily Watkins in Brazil in 1934 to a wealthy Czech-British railway engineer and his Jewish Ukrainian-Uruguayan wife, the first decades of her life were not all 19th-century rosewood tables and weekend parties at Southern France. She divorced her first husband (wealth in knitwear), while her second husband (wealth in home appliances) died by suicide in 1969. Safra and her third husband (no wealth worth mentioning) separated after two weeks.
And then there was the fourth. In 1976, Lily married the Lebanese-Brazilian Edmond J. Safra, founder of the Republic National Bank of New York and a former banker for her second husband. During their 23-year marriage, they collected art and furniture, decorated homes around the world, gave bounties to universities and spent time at La Leopolda, their sprawling estate on the French Riviera.
But it came to a sudden, horrific end in December 1999. A few months after her husband, by then suffering from Parkinson’s, sold his banking assets to HSBC for $10.3 billion, a nurse in his Monaco penthouse started a fire, apparently with the intention of save your employer from him to gain his favor. Edmond was suffocated instead.
This tragedy gave birth to the rumor mill in society. Gossip has portrayed Safra, who was worth $1.3 billion at her death, as a black widow. A 2005 novel seems to suggest that a character with a striking resemblance to Safra killed two of her husbands. Safra’s lawyer wrote to the publisher that there was no way she could win a defamation case “because Ms. Safra is not a serial killer.” A friend of Safra said she regrets the dishonest, false shadow these rumors cast, obscuring how “committed” she is to Edmond.
The gossip also had the potential to cloud her vigorous philanthropy – although her and Edmund’s names adorn everything from a children’s hospital in Israel to a chair in translational neurology at Imperial College London. In a philanthropic sleight of hand, she paid $21 million for an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter in 2011—then an auction record for the artist—and two months later donated it to the Israel Museum (which has an Edmond and Lily Safra fine arts wing). .
Her gifts weren’t just for big institutions: she was introduced to a young woman who had founded an orphanage in Rwanda and gave her $1 million from the proceeds of the sale of her jewelry to Christie’s. At her funeral, the rabbi recalled to a mourner that Safra drove her driver around New York so she could give clothes to homeless people.
Safra’s friend said she was shrewd enough to use her status as a socialite “to further her philanthropic activities”, more as a catalyst than a social butterfly. Of course, there was a lot of social unrest. Guests at her table ranged from Margaret Thatcher and Elton John to Javier Pérez de Cuellar, former Secretary General of the United Nations. She presided over these gatherings as an elegant and engaging presence, conversing in six languages. An admirable quality, friends say, is that she brings out the best in her interlocutor while remaining modest in her own views. She still buys art, paying a record $103 million for a Giacometti sculpture in 2010.
Robin Woodhead, until recently chairman of Sotheby’s International and a long-time friend of Safra’s, believes that the world has not given her her due: “Yes, she was married to a powerful man, but she was an extraordinary woman in her own right and — if she had been born later — she herself could run a large company, even a country. The French Riviera was never enough for Lily Safra. Josh Spero