Villa les Cèdres, a Murderous Oligarch, & a Cruel King
In the middle of the 19th century, the Côte d’Azur was still a wild land covered with scrub, pine forests, and olive groves.
Villa Les Cèdres was built in 1830 by the Pollonnais, a Jewish family who were carpet merchants in Nice. Then called the ‘Les Oiseaux’ villa, it was bought in 1850 by the Jewish mayor of Villefranche-sur-Mer (from 1872 to 1900), David-Désiré Pollonnais, who extended the villa. At the time, the 35-acre property had an operational olive tree farm, and many of those trees are still alive on the grounds today.
The mayor’s descendants sold the property to King Leopold II, who expanded the gardens that still surround the home. The King transformed this bucolic paradise into a superb property called “Les Cèdres”.
It was in 1904 that the King purchased Villa Pollonnais. By this time, locals were becoming worried about the amount of land that was being bought by the king, especially as he tended to close up the properties by barbed wire, preventing people freely entering the grounds.
After buying the villa and its 15 hectors of land, the king turned to his favorite architect, Aaron Messiah, to enlarge the villa. This included adding to original west wing of the villa, and creating a whole new 3-story building, finished with a large peristyle with massive pillars. When the expansion was complete and the property was repainted, he renamed it to “Les Cèdres”.
A bronze statue of Athena, draped with a marble tunic, stood guard at the front entrance. Inside, the vibe was decadent and slightly weathered, consistent with the estate’s Belle Epoque heyday: grand sitting rooms, chandeliers, French doors, and floor-to-ceiling 19th century portraits in ornate frames. Its wood-paneled library held 3,000 books on flora and naturalism, including a 1640 edition of a botanical codex, now worth several hundred thousand euros.
While there were big changes made to the inside of the property, there were also huge changes made to the gardens. Under the supervision of Harold Peto and Jules Vacherot (who was responsible for the arrangement of the gardens of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs Elysées in Paris) a strip of 2 kms was made for the king to ride with no onlookers. Alongside this, a pool of 50 meters in length was also dug into the rocks.
After all the renovations, the 18,000-square-foot luxury villa boasted 14 bedrooms, a party hall, conservatory, chapel, stables, and acres of botanic gardens where 20,000 plant species were, and still are, grown. In fact, the estate of Villa Les Cèdres is still the largest private botanical garden in the world. “It’s a real treasure, I call it the Louvre of botany,” said Franklin Picard who, in 1999, published a cult book on Les Cèdres.
The garden is centered around a main avenue which ends in a floral roundabout at the foot of a symmetrical staircase leading to the villa’s entrance. The area northwest of the building contains four terraces adorned with flowerbeds and statues. In the southeastern portion of the property there is a rectangular shallow pond surrounded by flowerbeds in the King’s arms, and small rose and orange gardens. The entrance to the path leading to the stables is framed by a sculpted arch, Corinthian columns and vine-covered trellises.
However incredible his properties were, King Leopold II chose to live in Monaco instead, and Cap Ferrat became home to his teenage mistress. Cap Ferrat was the ideal spot for an illicit love affair, well-hidden from prying eyes. The King set Blanche up at the ex-villa Vial at Passable, renamed the “Radiana” until the expansion of villa Les Cèdres was completed.
To her, Les Cèdres must have seemed a golden prison with panoramic sea views, lost in the midst of luxuriant vegetation. Blanche spent her days at the villa alone, waiting for her royal lover who forbade her to go out or to receive other visitors. She gave birth one of their two illegitimate sons at the villa Les Cèdres.
Here’s more about their strange story: An Evil King, His Teenage Prostitute & the Most Expensive Villas in the World.
After Leopold’s death, Blanche Delacroix was evicted from villa Les Cèdres, and his nephew, King Albert I, became its new owner. In 1924 it was acquired by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, the creator of Grand Marnier.
The sale of the Grand Marnier liquor company to Gruppo Campari included this villa. Despite misleading news reports that this is a billion-euro property, the villa was actually just a small part of the total Grand Marnier purchase.
In 2019, Gruppo Campari sold the villa to Ukraine’s richest man, billionaire (and alleged mafia boss) Rinat Akhmetov, for €200 million (it had been on the market for years at €1 billion). According to political journals Post-Soviet Affairs and The Nation, Akhmetov was investigated on murder charges and for his alleged role in organized crime, but to avoid prosecution in the Ukraine, he fled to Monaco. In June 2005, Serhiy Kornich, then head of the Ukraine’s Interior Ministry’s economic crimes department, stated publicly that Akhmetov was “the head of [an] organized crime group.” News reports suggest that he has transferred billions of dollars to Russian oligarchs. As of January 2023, he was listed as the 639th richest person in the world with an estimated net worth of $11.54 billion (USD).
Today, the villa’s famous neighbors include Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Want more? Here’s a list of famous villas, the celebrities who owned them, and the crazy things that happened there.