Lily Safra, a major art collector who bought what was at one point the most expensive sculpture in the world, has died of pancreatic cancer at 87. News of her death was first reported by the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, where she served as chair.
Safra, who was featured in ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list each year between 2004 and 2018, accrued her wealth and status via several high-profile marriages, the fourth and final of which was to the banker Edmond Safra. He founded the Republic National Bank of New York, which sold to HSBC before his death in 1999.
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Following his death from asphyxiation during a fire in his Monaco residence, Lily inherited around $4 billion. The controversial nature of Safra’s demise—the fire was ultimately found to have been arson committed by one of his medical staffers—received a maelstrom of media attention.
With Edmond’s financial support, Lily had established herself as a philanthropist. The pair funded causes in the educational and medical spaces, backing a children’s hospital in Israel, endowing a chair in the neuroscience department at the Imperial College London, and putting money toward an ethics center at Harvard University, among other initiatives.
Born in Brazil in 1934, Safra’s father worked as a railway engineer. Before marrying Edmond in 1976, Lily had gone through two divorces and become a widow from a third marriage. Her first marriage was to another wealthy Argentine, industrialist Mario Cohen, with whom she had three children and from whom separated in the 1960s. Through her second marriage to Freddie Monteverde, she inherited $300 million.
She became a fixture in New York social circles beginning in the 1970s, following her marriage to Edmond. Together, the couple amassed a valuable modern and contemporary art collection, which at one point included a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.
Safra reportedly paid a then-record price of $103 million in 2010 for the Giacometti, making it the most expensive sculpture ever sold at the time. In 2011, she gifted a $21 million abstract painting by Gerhard Richter to the Israel Museum, where the couple has a wing in their name.
Auction houses closely watched Safra’s buying habits over the years, and she sold off many of her personal effects for multimillion-dollar sums at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Many of the proceeds went to charity. A 2012 jewelry sale at Christie’s in Geneva raised $38 million with funds going to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Paris Opera, and Paris Ballet, among other organizations.
While living in New York in the early 2000s, Safra socialized with a range of high society figures, among them Margaret Thatcher, Michael Bloomberg, Evelyn and Leonard Lauder, and Carolina Herrera.
A recipient of the French Légion d’Honneur award and a trustee of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, Safra was a benefactor to museums and cultural efforts.
In 2003, she helped acquire Bill Viola’s 2001 video work Five Angels of the Millennium for London’s Tate Gallery, the Whitney Museum in New York, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. After the 2019 fire that caused major damage to the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, Safra pledged 10 million euros towards its restoration.