Lily Safra, philanthropist and art collector, 1934-2022
When Lily Safra did not endowed chairs in prestigious universities, she sold them in the golden walls of Sotheby’s. Safra had become extremely wealthy through her marriages and spent her good fortune as a philanthropist and as an art collector, with a particular fondness for pre-revolutionary France. In 2005, the auction of the contents of one of his homes, from Fabergé cane handles to Georgian ballot boxes, brought in $49 million.
This sale, said Mario Tavella, president of Sotheby’s Europe, who was approached by Safra to organize the auction, summed up his determination and charisma rather well. The art lover, who died at the age of 87, focused on every detail of the sale, from the floral arrangements of the promotional images to the box containing the catalogs, because “she had a very clear vision and wanted to ensure . . . [it] has been fully developed and delivered”. Tavella added that “she was firm but never harsh.” After the sale, she bought an iPod each for the dozens of staff who worked there.
Born Lily Watkins in Brazil in 1934 to a wealthy Czech-British railway engineer and his Ukrainian-Uruguayan Jewish wife, the first decades of her life weren’t all 19th-century rosewood tables and weekends. -ends in the south of France. She divorced her first husband (fortune sock), while her second husband (fortune household appliances) committed suicide in 1969. Safra and her third husband (fortune not mentioned) separated after a fortnight.
And then there was his fourth. In 1976 Lily married Lebanese-Brazilian Edmond J Safra, founder of the Republic National Bank of New York and a former banker to her second husband. During their 23-year marriage, they collected art and furniture, decorated homes around the world, bestowed largesse on universities and spent time at La Leopolda, their sprawling French Riviera estate. .
But that came to a sudden and terrible end in December 1999. A few months after her husband, then suffering from Parkinson’s disease, sold his bank holdings to HSBC for $10.3 billion, a nurse in her Monaco penthouse started a fire, apparently with the intention of saving his employer to curry favor with him. Instead, Edmond was asphyxiated.
This tragedy provided grist for the society’s rumor mill. Gossip portrayed Safra, who was worth $1.3 billion when she died, as a black widow. A 2005 novel seemed to suggest that a character with striking similarities to Safra killed two of her husbands. Safra’s attorney wrote to the publisher that there was no way to win a libel suit “since Mrs. Safra is not a serial killer”. A friend of Safra’s said he regretted the unfair and underhanded shadow these rumors cast, obscuring how “devoted” she was to Edmond.
Gossip also had the potential to cloud her energetic philanthropy – though her and Edmond’s names adorn everything from a children’s hospital in Israel to a chair in translational neuroscience at Imperial College London. In a charitable 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 Museum of Israel (which has an Edmond and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing).
Her donations weren’t restricted to big institutions: She was introduced to a young woman who had founded a Rwandan orphanage and given her $1 million from the proceeds of the sale of her jewelry by Christie’s. At his funeral, the rabbi reminded a mourner that Safra used to take his driver around New York so she could donate clothes to the homeless.
Safra’s friend said she was shrewd enough to use her socialite status “to further her philanthropic endeavors”, a catalyst rather than a social butterfly. There were, of course, many social waverings. Guests at his table ranged from Margaret Thatcher and Elton John to Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, former UN secretary general. She presided over these gatherings as an elegant and engaging presence, conversing in six languages. An admirable quality, say friends, was that she got the best out of her interviewer, while remaining modest about her own opinions. She has always bought art, paying a record $103 million for a Giacometti sculpture in 2010.
Robin Woodhead, until recently president of Sotheby’s International and a longtime friend of Safra’s, thinks the world hasn’t given her the credit she deserves: “Yes, she was married to a powerful man, but in her- even, she was an exceptional woman and – if she had been born later – could have run a large company, even a country, on her own.The Côte d’Azur was never enough for Lily Safra. Josh Spero