Situated on the French Riviera and once owned by the king of Belgium, Villa La Leopolda is estimated to be worth $750 million today.
The French Riviera is one of the most affluent and glamorous areas on Earth. Its waters are frequently decorated with yachts. Its shores are lined with coastal villages and towns that have welcomed some of the wealthiest and most influential aristocrats, artists, and entrepreneurs for decades.
But even among the glitzy façade of the Riviera, there are several standout locations that flaunt wealth like a peacock’s tail feathers — most notably, Villa La Leopolda in Villefranche-sur-Mer. The stunning property sits on 18 acres of land once owned by kings and later by Edmond and Lily Safra — the former a successful banker and philanthropist who amassed a fortune of $2.5 billion, the latter his wife who amassed her own fortune through four marriages.
Naturally, the history of Villa La Leopolda is rife with the sort of controversies and luxuries only afforded to the extremely wealthy, but the building itself is undeniably beautiful, in large part due to the aesthetic talents of its architect and interior designer, Ogden Codman, Jr.
Explore the history of Villa La Leopolda.
Villa La Leopolda, A Gift From Its Namesake King Leopold II Of Belgium To His Young Mistress
King Leopold II has not historically been remembered kindly by the people of Belgium or the Congo, and rightfully so.
At the height of European imperialism in Africa, the disfavored king ran a vast and cruel empire in what was once the Congo Free State — and unlike other imperialist states such as South Africa or the Spanish Sahara, Congo was ruled by Leopold II not as an extension of Belgium, but as his personal private property.
In essence, King Leopold II fashioned the Congo into the world’s largest plantation, with all of the negative connotations associated with the term. It’s uncertain what the population of the Congo was before Leopold II’s arrival, but historians estimate the state, three times the size of Texas, could have been home to 20 million people.
By 1924, that number had fallen to 10 million, a combination of starvation, disease, overwork, infections caused by mutilation, and mass executions of the locals per Leopold II’s orders.
During his rule, Leopold II, like many tyrants, had a number of mistresses, but the most notorious was a 16-year-old girl named Blanche Zélia Joséphine Delacroix, otherwise known as Carline Lacroix, a Parisian prostitute who met the king when he was 65 years old, according to the Villa La Leopolda website.
Delacroix was not popular among the Belgian people, nor was King Leopold II, who could barely speak proper Dutch, publicly lamented the small size of Belgium, and spent much of his time in the French Riviera, in addition to his numerous atrocities in the Congo. His infatuation with his underage mistress likely fueled some of the contempt directed toward her.
The king was in fact so infatuated with Delacroix that he granted her the title of Baronne de Vaughan and a massive estate on the land he owned in the French Riviera, the land on which the Villa La Leopolda now sits.
Old age eventually caught up to the king, though, and when he died in 1909, he was succeeded by his nephew, Albert I — who promptly evicted Delacroix from the villa and later repurposed it as a military hospital during the First World War.
Shortly after, the land passed to Thérèse Vitali, Comtesse de Beauchamp, who commissioned several modifications to the estate and later sold the property to the American architect, Ogden Codman, Jr.
In 1929, Codman began turning the property into his architectural magnum opus and completed the work in only two years. Unfortunately, the project wasn’t cheap, and by 1931 Codman had dug himself into a financial hole so deep that he simply could not afford to live in the villa and needed to rent it out instead.
At one point, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor tried leasing the villa, but Codman’s explicit adherence to his aesthetic standards meant the Duke and Duchess could not make the changes they envisioned. In the end, Codman simply stated, “I regret that the House of Codman is unable to do business with the House of Windsor.”
After Codman’s death, the Villa La Leopolda went through a number of wealthy owners including Fiat president Gianni Agnelli and his wife, Marella.
Then, in 1987, Villa La Leopolda would once again find new owners in the form of Edmond and Lily Safra.
Edmond And Lily Safra’s Lavish Life At The Riveria Estate
When they were still among the living, Edmond Safra and his wife Lily were known as two of the wealthiest people on the planet. Edmond Safra’s historic rise to wealth and fallout with American Express are well-chronicled in a 1989 New York Magazine piece.
Safra was born in Beirut to a family of successful bankers who had done their work in the Ottoman Empire until it collapsed following World War I.
He never went to college, instead working for his father from the time he was 16, establishing himself as something of a banking prodigy and eventually starting his own bank in Brazil by the time he was 24.
As the years went on, Safra’s knack for banking never seemed to fade, and he amassed a fortune for himself that few could rightfully scoff at.
His wife, meanwhile, had also become quite wealthy, albeit under different circumstances. Lily Safra was born Lily Watkins in Brazil in 1934, and her father was a railway manufacturer in Mesquita; the main street was named for him. At 17, Lily Watkins moved to Montevideo, Uruguay and married a man named Mario Cohen. Their marriage ended in divorce and three children, then she returned to Rio de Janeiro.
In 1965, she once again married, this time to Alfredo Monteverde, who owned an appliance store chain called Pinto Frio. Unfortunately, the marriage only lasted four years, as Monteverde, struggling with bipolar disorder, died by suicide in 1969.
Three years later, she married Samuel Bendahan; a year later, they divorced. In 1976, she married her fourth and final husband, Edmond Safra, who had reportedly been her late second husband’s banker once upon a time.
The fourth time, it seemed, was the charm. Edmond and Lily Safra remained married, quite literally, until death did them part in 1999 when he died in an apartment fire started by his nurse, Ted Maher. Maher had intended to “heroically” save his lavishly wealthy boss, but Safra instead died of smoke inhalation.
Following this, Lily Safra inherited her husband’s fortune.
Their exorbitant wealth, of course, allowed them to live lavishly during their years together. The couple owned properties all over the world, including a penthouse in Monaco, 10 miles from Villa La Leopolda, but the villa ultimately became their pride and joy after they purchased it in 1987.
Despite being known to value his privacy and staying out of the public eye, Edmond Safra frequently welcomed high-profile guests to Villa La Leopolda — so frequently, in fact, that one party simply could not fit the entirety of his guest list. The Safras would host one party on Friday, and then another on Monday just to make time for all of their attendees.
Female guests were reportedly given ornate enameled boxes featuring a portrait of the villa; food was arranged by the famous chef, Roger Verge, of the Moulin de Mougins; Edmond Safra flew in Brazilian conductor Sergio Mendes and his orchestra, and the pianist David Wood and his quartet, to perform at parties.
The publisher John Fairchild later wrote about one of the Safra’s balls in his book Chic Savages and described the occasion as “the ultimate in conspicuous consumption.”
Lily Safra owned Villa La Leopolda until her death on July 9, 2022. She was 87 years old. However, there was a brief moment where it seemed Safra might have let go of the villa, had certain events not caused the sale to fall through.
Playboy Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s Second-Richest Man, Loses $53 Million Trying To Buy Villa La Leopolda
In the mid-2000s, the Russian nickel tycoon, Mikhail Prokhorov, finally seemed to have worn Lily Safra down. He had attempted to buy Villa La Leopolda several times before, but Safra didn’t want to sell.
But his persistence seemed to pay off, and the 44-year-old billionaire playboy put down a 10 percent deposit on the property — a staggering $53 million. Villa La Leopolda’s $530 million price tag broke records at the time, making it the world’s most expensive home.
Then, in 2008, the worldwide financial crisis made Prokhorov second guess his purchase, and he backed out of the deal. HIs $53 million, however, was never returned to him; a French court ruled that it didn’t need to be. But with an estimated wealth of $17.85 billion, the loss of a few hundred-thousand dollars didn’t appear to make much difference to him.
Lily Safra ended up donating that $53 million to various global charities, however, where it was likely to make a real difference.