The Operatic Fall of Multimillionaire Alberto Vilar

The arts patron in 2001, before his fortune apparently vaporized.
The arts patron in 2001, before his fortune apparently vaporized. (By James Patrick Cooper For The Washington Post)

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By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 4, 2005

NEW YORK -- When Alberto Vilar attended the opera at the Met -- which he did a few dozen times a year -- he nearly always sat by himself. But the man never seemed quite as alone as he did yesterday, seated by his lawyer in a Manhattan courtroom and fighting to get out of jail.

Vilar, once a stock-market superstar and a spectacularly generous donor to the Kennedy Center and the Washington Opera, among many arts organizations around the world, could have used some wealthy friends. But none were around yesterday as his lawyer tried to free him from his cell in the Metropolitan Correction Center, where he's bunked since his arrest last week for allegedly bilking an investment client out of $5 million.

Vilar's lawyer had come to present an alternative to the $10 million bail set by a judge soon after the 64-year-old was handcuffed by authorities at Newark Liberty International Airport. Attorney Susan Necheles said yesterday that Vilar could put up art worth as much as $2 million that hangs in his Manhattan apartment and a South Hampton home worth about $1.8 million.

The rest? Well, that's where it all got kind of poignant. To assure the judge that Vilar is no flight risk, Necheles cited four pals who, she said, were willing to bet their life savings that he wouldn't flee the country. But these people, it turned out, aren't exactly swimming in cash. Among them: a man who met Vilar years ago in Puerto Rico, who is now a public school teacher, as well as his wife, who works part time taking reservations for an airline.

"They are people of limited means," Necheles said during the hearing. "They are willing to lose everything they have, to risk financial ruin, because they so believe in Mr. Vilar."

"Well, they have very few assets, though," Judge Harold Baer said a little skeptically.

That was exactly the point, it turned out. "For him to leave, and to flee," Necheles said later on, "and to leave these people destitute is something that he would have to live with for the rest of his life."

Baer seemed unmoved by that logic and seemed to discount Necheles's four-friends argument. He said Vilar could leave jail when he posted $4 million in cash or assets. Because Vilar doesn't appear to have either handy at the moment, he was led by marshals back to his cell. He left looking numb, exceedingly thin and limping a little, the aftereffects of back surgery that fused four of his vertebrae. He was dressed in a lavender button-down shirt and black slacks, and he might have appeared ready to head back to his Park Avenue office, except for one detail: As a standard suicide precaution, jailkeepers had taken away his belt.

'Visions of Grandeur'

Strange but true, you have to go to Vilar's enemies these days to find someone who'll say he's getting the shaft.

"He's a miserable human being and a basic scumbag," said Donald Trump yesterday. "He spent $2 million trying to fight me when I wanted to build the Trump World Towers" because it obstructed the view from Vilar's apartment at United Nations Plaza. "He was intractable and foolish and he ended up getting his [butt] kicked by me." Trump means that the towers were built.

"But he gave millions to charities and they've treated him like garbage," he adds. "I think that's terrible. The least they could say is thank you."


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