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Lily Safra

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Lily Safra
Lily Watkins

(1934-12-30)30 December 1934
Porto Alegre, Brazil
Died9 July 2022(2022-07-09) (aged 87)
Geneva, Switzerland
CitizenshipMonaco and Brazil
  • Socialite
  • philanthropist
  • Mario Cohen
    (m. 1952; div. 1960)
  • Alfredo Monteverde
    (m. 1964; died 1969)
  • Samuel Bendahan
    (m. 1972; div. 1973)
  • (m. 1976; died 1999)

Lily Safra (née Watkins; also Cohen, Monteverde and Bendahan; 30 December 1934 – 9 July 2022) was a Brazilian-Monegasque billionaire and socialite who amassed considerable wealth through her four marriages. She had a significant art collection and owned the historic Villa Leopolda on the French Riviera.[1] Her net worth was estimated at $1.3 billion.[2] She became strongly engaged with philanthropy when she married the banker Edmond Safra, and this continued through their foundation after his death in 1999.


Lily Safra was born Lily Watkins[3] on 30 December 1934 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. She was the daughter of Wolf White Watkins, a railway engineer of Anglo-Jewish origin who was born in Czechoslovakia and moved to South America during the electrification of Brazilian railroads, and Annita Noudelman de Castro, a Uruguayan of Russian Jewish ancestry.[4]: 17f  She grew up in Rio de Janeiro, and then moved with her family to Montevideo, Uruguay.

At age 17, she met and married Mario Cohen, an Argentine hosiery magnate of Italian Jewish descent.[5] They had three children.[6] Lily and Mario Cohen divorced in the early 1960s.[6]

In 1965, Lily married Alfredo Monteverde [pt],[7] formerly Greenberg.[8] He was a Romanian Jewish immigrant who fled Europe in 1939.[5] He was a leader in the Brazilian household appliance distribution business, where he established the Ponto Frio [pt] brand. Lily adopted his child, named Carlos. In 1969, Monteverde killed himself. A month after his death, Lily moved to London. Her late husband's banker, Edmond Safra, helped her secure control over her late spouse's entire fortune.[5] She dated Safra for some time, but the romance ended. At the time, Safra's family, who is of Sephardic Jewish descent, did not approve of his relationship with Lily, who was of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.[5]

In 1972, she married businessman Samuel Bendahan, also a Sephardic Jew, and a man of more modest means.[5] They separated after two weeks, and she divorced him one year later.[5][8]

In 1976, she married Safra. The prominent banker was of Syrian Jewish origin and a naturalized Brazilian citizen.[9][10] He founded the Republic National Bank of New York. The couple divided their time among homes in New York City, Monaco, Geneva, and the Villa Leopolda on the French Riviera.[8][11]

On 2 December 1999, Lily and Edmond Safra gained Monegasque citizenship.[8]

On 3 December 1999,[8] Edmond was killed in Monaco in a fire that was determined to be arson. His death attracted considerable media interest because of his wealth and position.[12] Edmond Safra "apparently felt so safe here that he did not have his bodyguards stay the night when he slept in Monaco".[13] Ted Maher, a former U.S. Green Beret, was accused of starting the fire in order to gain acceptance from Edmond Safra when he would ultimately rescue him, but it went out of control.[14] Maher was convicted and sentenced to ten years in jail.[15]

Edmond Safra left 50% of his assets to several charities, with the remainder divided among his family members and wife Lily, who received $800 million.[16]

Lady Colin Campbell's novel Empress Bianca (2005) was considered to be a defamatory roman à clef by Safra's solicitor, Anthony Julius. Reacting to the legal threat in the United Kingdom, its publishers, Arcadia, withdrew the book and destroyed unsold copies.[4]: 265f  A revised edition of the book was later published in the United States.[4]: 265f 

Lily Safra died from pancreatic cancer in Geneva on 9 July 2022 at age 87.[17]

Philanthropy and art collection[edit]

Lily Safra supported numerous foundations, organisations, and charities. In 1977, she, her husband Edmond Safra, and Nina Weiner founded the International Sephardic Education Foundation. She chaired the Edmond J. Safra Foundation,[18] which supports medical research and humanitarian relief. The Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics has been established at Harvard. In 2010, her donation of over $12 million established a cross-disciplinary research laboratory on institutional corruption.[19] Part of her collection, which mainly consists of handicrafts, was auctioned at Sotheby's in 2011.[20] In 2012 Lily Safra donated Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild 849-3 (1997) to the Israel Museum in memory of her husband, Edmond J. Safra. Several works donated to the Israel Museum are now housed in the museum's Edmond and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing.[21] Many of her donations came through selling pieces of her vast art collection. In 2012 she sold 70 pieces of jewelry, including a 34.05-carat rectangular-cut diamond ring, to benefit 20 charities, including one that aided impoverished Rwandan children.[22]

Emergency relief[edit]

Safra supported the American Red Cross and helped the Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005. Through the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, she helped found the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities at the University of Haifa.[23]

In connection with the 2005 sale at Sotheby's of furniture and art from her collection, Safra donated $3 million to charities in New York which she and her husband had supported for many years, along with a gift to Dillard University in New Orleans to help them rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.[24] Sotheby's announced in 2011 that an auction of Mr. and Mrs. Safra's collections, including furniture, artwork, silverware, and decorative objects, took place in New York City.[25][26]

In May 2012, Safra proposed to Geneva's Christie's an exceptional auction of 70 pieces of her personal jewelry collection.[27] The Jewels for Hope sale included 18 pieces by JAR, the largest personal collection designed by the jeweler ever to be sold.[28] The entire record profits from the sale were donated to 32 charitable institutions around the world in the fields of healthcare, education, religion and culture, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation and Hope and Homes for Children in Romania.[29]


Safra ensured the completion of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in Manhattan.[30]

Research on healthcare[edit]

In 2009, Safra was honored by the Elton John AIDS Foundation with its "An Enduring Vision" award for her long-time support. In October 2013, Safra donated $1 million in support of the foundation's grant-making programs.[31] That same year, Safra contributed $16 million toward Edmond and Lily Safra Children's Hospital in Tel HaShomer. She also donated $5 million toward the One Laptop Per Child project.[32]

She established the Edmond J. Safra Family Lodge,[33] for patients battling illnesses, as well as their families, at the National Institutes of Health near Washington, D.C. In July 2010, she donated 8 million euros to the Institute for Brain and Spinal Cord Injuries in Paris.[34]

The Foundation and Safra also helped establish the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at the Hebrew University,[35] and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Bioinformatics and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at the Tel Aviv University.[36]

Safra served on the board of directors for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's research.[37] In 2020, the Foundation announced the creation of The Edmond J. Safra Humanitarian Award to honor Mrs. Safra's profound philanthropic contributions to Parkinson's research and care. During her tenure as Chairwoman of The Edmond J. Safra Foundation, Lily Safra directed support to a number of initiatives at The Michael J. Fox Foundation, including early funding for the Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative and The Edmond J. Safra Fellowship in Movement Disorders.[38]

Also in 2009, Safra promised the Claude Pompidou Foundation a donation of 7 million euros for the construction and completion of the Claude Pompidou Institute for Alzheimer's research and treatment in the city of Nice, France. The institute was inaugurated and welcomed its first patients in 2014.[39]

Safra was a Patron of Hope and Homes for Children in the UK[40] and a supporter of its work for children in Romania.[41]

Arts and culture[edit]

Safra was a member of the Chairman's Council of the Museum of Modern Art.[36]

On 3 February 2010, at an auction in London, Safra acquired L'Homme qui marche I, a life-sized bronze sculpture by Alberto Giacometti of a man, for £65 million (US$104.3 million). The purchase became one of the most expensive works of art and the most expensive sculpture ever purchased.[42][43]

In April 2019, Safra pledged €10 million towards the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris after the fire which greatly damaged the cathedral.[44]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The World's Most Expensive Billionaire Homes". Forbes. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  2. ^ "Lily Safra". Forbes. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  3. ^ "Gilded Lily faces her husband's 'killer'". The Daily Telegraph. London. 22 November 2002.
  4. ^ a b c d Vincent, Isabel (2010). Gilded Lily. Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-113393-0.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "The billionaire's widow". Maclean's. 29 July 2010. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  6. ^ a b Alan Howe (16 July 2022). "Lily Safra's life of extraordinary wealth often checked by tragedy". The Australian. p. 12. Retrieved 16 July 2022.
  7. ^ Dan, Uri (5 December 1999). "Widow's life full of tragic heartbreak". New York Post. Archived from the original on 21 October 2012. Retrieved 12 April 2008.
  8. ^ a b c d e Dunne, Dominick (December 2000). "Death in Monaco". Vanity Fair. Archived from the original on 29 September 2010.
  9. ^ "Edmond J. Safra: A biography on the Sephardi Jewish legend - review". The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. 31 October 2022. Retrieved 8 March 2024.
  10. ^ (Page 5, 2015’s version) https://www.edmondjsafra.org/book/
  11. ^ Henry, Michel (4 December 1999). "Monaco: mort suspecte d'un roi de la Finance. Edmond J. Safra est décédé vendredi dans un incendie" [Monaco: suspicious death of a King of Finance. Edmond J. Safra died in a fire on Friday.]. Libération (in French). Archived from the original on 4 March 2010. Retrieved 17 July 2021.
  12. ^ "Billionaire's mysterious death in Monte Carlo". Dateline NBC. 23 March 2008. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  13. ^ Daley, Suzanne (7 December 1999). "Nurse Is Said to Admit Arson That Killed Banker in Monaco". The New York Times.
  14. ^ "Murder in Monaco: An American on Trial". CBS News. 8 July 2003.
  15. ^ Andrew Osborn (23 January 2003). "Nurse who set fire to billionaire saws his way out of Monaco jail". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 July 2022.
  16. ^ "Dossier Finance de 7 Milliards a 100 Millions" [Finance Dossier from 7 Billion to 100 Million]. bilan.ch (in French). Archived from the original on 9 July 2012. Retrieved 20 June 2019.
  17. ^ "Billionaire Lily Safra, Widow of Edmond Safra, Dies at 87". Bloomberg News. Retrieved 9 July 2022.
  18. ^ "Edmond J. Safra Foundation – Home". edmondjsafra.org. 19 December 2014. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  19. ^ Kaplan, Thomas (19 October 2010). "With Gift, Harvard to Study Institutional Corruption". DealB%k. The New York Times. Retrieved 28 July 2022.
  20. ^ "Property From The Collections Of Lily & Edmond J. Safra". 18 October 2011. Retrieved 21 August 2023.
  21. ^ "Edmond J. Safra Foundation - the Israel Museum, Jerusalem".
  22. ^ Risen, Clay (16 July 2022). "Lily Safra, Star-Crossed Socialite and Philanthropist, Dies at 87". The New York Times.
  23. ^ a b "Mrs Lily Safra, founding benefactor of the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities at the University of Haifa, receives an honorary doctorate". haifa.ac.il. University of Haifa. 3 June 2009. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  24. ^ Shin, Paul H. B. (15 October 2005). "3M Gifts By Widow". New York Daily News.
  25. ^ "Safra collections sale expected to raise $40 million". Reuters.com. 20 June 2011.
  26. ^ "Auction Results: Property from the Collections of Lily & Edmond J. Safra – Volumes I–VI". Sotheby's. Retrieved 20 June 2019.
  27. ^ Lily Safra's Jewels for Hope Auction Fetches $38 Million, Sets 2 Records, Forbes, 14 May 2012
  28. ^ "Release: Jewels For Hope : The Collection Of Mrs Lily Safra". Christies.com (Press release). 29 March 2012. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  29. ^ "Record breaking charity jewellery auction brings change for children in Romania". hopeandhomes.org. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  30. ^ Harary, Jared (1 March 2010). "Safra Synagogue, an island at the center of the world". Jewish Image Magazine.
  31. ^ Cimarusti, Nicholas (2 November 2013). "Philanthropist Gives $1 Million to Elton John AIDS Foundation". Advocate.com. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  32. ^ Sadeh, Shuki (17 March 2013). "How foreign donors reshaped Israel: A who's who". Haaretz. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  33. ^ "NIH Clinical Center: Family Lodge". nih.gov. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  34. ^ "Comunicado: Unprecedented Donation Made by Mrs. Lily Safra to the Institute for Brain and Spinal Cord Disorders in Paris". Europapress.es (in Spanish). 8 July 2010. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  35. ^ "Division For Advancement & External Relations". Hunews.huji.ac.il. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  36. ^ a b "TAU Mourns Honorary Doctor, Longtime Friend Lily Safra". Tel Aviv University. 11 July 2022. Retrieved 16 July 2022.
  37. ^ "Board of Directors: Lily Safra". michaeljfox.org. Archived from the original on 6 May 2008. Retrieved 20 June 2019.
  38. ^ "The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research Confers the Edmond J. Safra Humanitarian Award on Lily Safra in Recognition of Leadership Philanthropy | Parkinson's Disease". www.michaeljfox.org. Retrieved 13 July 2022.
  39. ^ "Villa Léopolda : Lily Safra fait don de 39 M€ de caution | Villefranche-sur-Mer". Nice-Matin (in French). Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  40. ^ "Hope and Homes for Children | Who we are". hopeandhomes.org. Archived from the original on 2 November 2011. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  41. ^ "Ne pare rău, pagina solicitată nu există!". HHC.ro (in Romanian). Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  42. ^ "Giacometti sculpture fetches £65m at Sotheby's auction". BBC News. 5 February 2011. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
  43. ^ Deirde Wollard (1 March 2011). "Lily Safra Named as Byer of World's Most Expensive Sculpture". Luxist. Archived from the original on 11 January 2012. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
  44. ^ "Plus de 800 millions d'euros de dons pour la reconstruction de Notre-Dame". Les Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace (in French). Archived from the original on 16 April 2019. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  45. ^ a b "Lily Safra | The Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences". Elsc.huji.ac.il. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  46. ^ "Fellows and Honorary Fellows of the College as at May 2021" (PDF). King's College London. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  47. ^ "Other Sephardic Organizations – ISEF". American Sephardi Federation. Archived from the original on 4 November 2005. Retrieved 28 May 2015.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  48. ^ "The Courtauld Institute of Art : Newsletter Archive". The Courtauld Institute of Art. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  49. ^ "Independent Imperial College London awards its first degrees". Imperial College London. 9 July 2007. Archived from the original on 16 June 2011. Retrieved 20 June 2019.
  50. ^ "Tel Aviv University Honorary Degree Recipients, 1965-2008" (PDF). tau.ac.il. Tel Aviv University. p. 7. Retrieved 16 July 2022.
  51. ^ "Honorary Degree Recipients". Brandeis University. Archived from the original on 26 July 2010.
  52. ^ "Technion Confers Honorary Doctorate on Madame Lily Safra". Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. 12 December 2018. Retrieved 20 June 2019.

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