Racetrack bookmaker to £170m art collector
THEY say you never see a poor bookmaker – but you rarely see one with a fortune of £170m and an incredible art collection.
Meet Joe Donnelly and his elegant wife Marie, who could hit it hard again at the Cheltenham Festival with their superstar stable of top horses.
Familiar names like Champion Chase favorite Shishkin, two-time Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo and Ryanair Chance Melon are just a few.
But despite all their success on the runway, the couple made a fortune — or at least part of it — thanks to it.
Just over 15 years ago, the couple moved to France after making a fortune selling a building found on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, where Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana were staying before their fatal car crash.
Joe started his life as a bookmaker, before making millions and investing his money in art.
At one time he owned a gallery in Ireland, although it would have been impossible to visit – only the elite being allowed entry.
But it housed works by world-renowned artists, including Picasso and Matisse, who are now at home in Dublin.
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He is a man who values his privacy.
In the 1990s, Donnelly was an influential bookmaker.
He was president of the Irish National Bookmakers’ Association and twice a member of the board of the Irish Horseracing Authority, which preceded Horse Racing Ireland.
And he was very proud of his profession, imparting his knowledge to bettors with a recognized understated style that attracted admirers.
However, despite his calm demeanor, he knew when to stand up for himself.
A display of a more acerbic character came at Leopardstown in 1995, when on-course betting shops were introduced and their methods of operation questioned.
Donnelly succeeded in preventing stores from accepting single bets at the home meeting, after gaining support from INBA members for the strike.
But the seeds for a more artistic life were planted by his wife.
The art scene
A decade before Joe earned his reputation as a bookmaker, the family moved to Dublin.
There they became synonymous with the cultural and artistic world of the capital and supported local charities.
Marie helped found the Irish Hospice Foundation in 1986, before joining its board three years later and becoming president in 1997.
She set up a fundraiser called The Whoseday Project and managed to raise over £2million.
Friends, including poet Seamus Heaney and artist Louis Le Brocquy, helped her in her quest.
Soon the Donnellys were kings in Dublin.
Their house, itself, is a work of art. Carved into the side of a hill in Killiney, an affluent suburb close to the city, it offers views of the sea.
He now has an art collection dominated by international artists, after an art gallery he owned closed.
Works by Matisse and Picasso are complemented by pieces by Willem de Kooning, Julian Schnabel and Georg Baselitz – with a figure on the value of the collection impossible to pin down.
Considered major players in the art world, Joe and Marie have both participated in the International Council of the Tate Gallery, as well as the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
However, they also like to invest in real estate.
In 2005, Joe bought a building on what is described as the most beautiful avenue in the world, the Champs-Elysées.
Not only does it house a Cartier store visited by the rich and famous, but above it are apartments worth millions due to their lavish location.
In 1997, long before the Donnellys showed an interest, it was where Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana were staying before they lost their lives in a car crash.
Apparently, when the deal was made some eight years later, their assets were still at the residence.
“It was like a shrine with all her clothes, jewelry, etc. still in place,” a source told The Times.
“After the deal was done, his father took it all away. The Donnellys acquired it as an investment with the intention of selling all the apartments.”
A year later, Joe knocked the building down for an undisclosed sum.
From now on, it is in the race that he holds his major asset.
Ahead of Cheltenham, his horse Shishkin is the big favorite for the Champion Chase.
You wouldn’t let the Donnellys through to cheer on a winner… quietly, of course.