The Villa La Leopolda is a large detached villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer, in the Alpes-Maritimes department on the French Riviera. The villa is situated in 18 acres of grounds. The villa has had several notable owners including Gianni and Marella Agnelli, Izaak and Dorothy J. Killam, and, since 1987, by Edmond (1932–1999) and Lily Safra, who inherited the villa after her husband's death.
Villa La Leopolda in its current incarnation was designed and built from 1929 to 1931 by an American architect, Ogden Codman, Jr., on an estate once owned by King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold had made the previous estate a present for his mistress Blanche Zélia Joséphine Delacroix, also known as Caroline Lacroix, and it derives its name from him. After Leopold's death, Blanche Delacroix was evicted, and his nephew, King Albert I, became its owner. During World War I it was used as a military hospital.
In 1919, Thérèse Vitali, comtesse de Beauchamp, acquired the property and commissioned modifications. The American architect Ogden Codman, Jr. purchased the dozen existing structures that made up the property including two peasant cottages, and began his architectural magnum opus in 1929. It was complete by 1931, however financial difficulties (and his lavish expenditures) precluded his being able to live in it, so he rented it out to various well-heeled tenants. One famous English couple tried to lease it, but insisted on making changes that were contrary to Codman's aesthetic objectives and strict list of protective clauses. Negotiations in a Paris Hotel room broke down over the many restrictions Codman imposed, and Ogden's response was: "I regret that the House of Codman is unable to do business with the House of Windsor." Codman's extensive designs and construction gave the estate, once a series of unrelated buildings, its current appearance. His neo-Palladian vision, coupled with his in-depth knowledge of historical precedent, resulted in the construction of a spectacular villa with extensive gardens and landscaping. Floor plans, letters, records, and stereo glass-plate views of the newly completed property still exist in the collections of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (aka "Historic New England") At Codman's death in 1951 the estate was sold to Izaak Walton Killam whose wife inherited the place after his death. In the later 1950s she sold it to Fiat president Gianni Agnelli (1921–2003) and Marella Agnelli.
Edmond and Lily Safra
In 1987 La Leopolda had become one of the properties owned by the Lebanese born Brazilian banker Edmond Safra and his wife, Lily. The Safras commissioned Renzo Mongiardino as interior designer, while the second-floor bedrooms were decorated by Mica Ertegün. The Safras held large parties at the villa, and, at a 1988 party, female guests were given an enameled box with a portrait of the Villa Leopolda. Safra's guest list was so vast that there was a party on the Saturday and a second party on the Monday night. There were tulips airlifted from Holland, food arranged by the famed chef Roger Verge of the Moulin de Mougins as well as Safra's favourite musicians, the Brazilian band leader Sergio Mendes who had flown in from California with is entire orchestra; and Safra's house pianist David Wood who had flown in from the UK with his quartet. The party was described by author John Fairchild as the "ultimate in conspicuous consumption". The banker Bill Browder recounted visiting Safra at the Villa Leopolda with Beny Steinmetz in his 2014 memoir Red Notice. Security was provided for Safra at the villa by a team of former Israeli commando soldiers. The Safras lived some 10 miles from the Villa Leopolda, in a penthouse apartment in Monaco.
The Russian billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov made several attempts to buy the Villa Leopolda from Safra before she finally accepted his offer for €370 million (plus €19.5 million for the villa's furniture) in the summer of 2008. Initial reports on the villa's sale in July 2008 had falsely identified fellow Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich as the purchaser. Prokhorov would later deny that he had bought the property, with his spokesperson saying that he had refused to do business in France after his 2007 detention by French police for allegedly providing prostitutes for guests at Courchevel, the ski resort in the French Alps. No charges were ever filed against Prokhorov in the prostitution case.
Prokhorov attempted to withdraw from the sale in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which led to a lawsuit between Prokhorov and Safra over the €39 million deposit that he had paid on the villa. A French court ruled against Prokhorov in November 2012 with Safra subsequently announcing that she would donate his deposit to various global charities.
In popular culture
The villa was used as the location of Lermontov's villa in 1948 film The Red Shoes. The heroine climbs the steps to the villa thinking that she's been invited to dinner. Instead she would be given the starring role in the new ballet.
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- Bill Browder (3 February 2015). Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice. Simon and Schuster. pp. 75–. ISBN 978-1-4767-5571-7.
- Andrew Anthony (29 October 2000). "The strange case of Edmond Safra". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 May 2015.
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- French classification as a historical monument
- Red notice.
- lalibre.be news article (in French)