Meet Joseph Safra, The Richest Banker On The Planet

Joseph Safra

Photo: AP

We’ve gone over Forbes’ exhaustive World’s Billionaires List with a fine-toothed comb, and we’ve finally come down to one of the most important parts — the richest banker in the world.His name is Joseph Safra, he’s 73 years-old and he’s worth $13.8 billion, according to Forbes and is #52 on their list. Currently, he lives in Brazil, but he was born in Beirut, Lebanon to a Jewish banking family whose wealth dates back to the Ottoman Empire.

The family moved to Brazil in 1952, where Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his brother, the late Edmond Safra, started working in the financial industry in Sao Paolo. Joseph eventually got in the business himself, founding Banco Safra, the 9th largest bank in Brazil, in the 1960s.

Last year, Safra bought Bank Sarasin, a private bank in Switzerland, from Rabobank of the Netherlands, for $1.1 billion. He also bought office space in Manhattan’s 660 Madison Avenue building for $285 million.

Now for the juicy stuff.

Most of what’s really interesting about the Safra family has to do with Joseph’s brother, philanthropist Edmond Safra. Edmond left Brazil in 1956 to start the Trade Develpment Bank in Switzerland (which he sold to American express for $553 million in the 1980s). He also founded the Republic National Bank of New York, which he later sold to HSBC. Both companies catered specifically to the super wealthy.

In 1977, he married Lily Watkins-Bendahan, he was her fourth husband. She makes the Billionaires List at #1015.

”I try to remain unknown as much as possible,” her husband explained to the New York Times in 1988.

Reporter Bryan Burroughs wrote a book about Edmond Safra (via MSNBC), and said:

The hallmark of Safra’s banks was always discretion. That, you know, you could tell your secrets to one of Edmond’s men and the secret police wouldn’t barge down your door that night.

That didn’t stop Safra from sharing his wealth in amounts that could not go unnoticed, though. In 1977 he and his wife Lily founded the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, and it continues to give to organisations all over the world today. Just to name a few of Safra’s causes: He helped refurbish synagogues all over the world, endowed the centre for Ethics at Harvard University and the science campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Edmond died in a mysterious arson at his Monaco home in 1999 (read an awesome Vanity Fair story on it here). His American male nurse, a veteran named Ted Maher, was convicted of setting a small fire that, he said, was not intended to hurt Safra and his nurse Vivien, who also died. When first questioned Maher said he was attacked by intruders who set the fire. He stabbed himself to make the story believable, CNN reports.

From CNN:

“The fire was very small and I did not think that the fire in such a small trash can was going to do all this,” Maher told an investigating magistrate in 2000, according to the June 18 ruling provided by the defence to last month. “Moreover, there were windows in the room, so I could not imagine that Mr. Safra and Vivian could die.”

Since 2003, Maher has been serving a 10 year sentence for the crime.

In more recent news, Lily Safra sold some of of her estate at Sotheby’s this fall. Her sale just happened to coincide with Occupy Wall Street demonstrations against the auction house, protesting the company’s art handler lock out. Occupiers burst into the sale, and held a mock trial against the company. Check out the video below:


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