The Fall of Alberto Vilar

The current issue of the New Yorker has a lengthy offline-only James B. Stewart piece on the fall of technology investor (and arts benefactor) Alberto Vilar. Recommended.

The New York Daily News has a nutty precis:

Even after being arrested last May and watching his Amerindo investment firm collapse, Alberto Vilar says in this week’s New Yorker that the real tragedy of his downfall was losing his seat on the Metropolitan Opera board.

“I adored the Met,” said Vilar, 64, fighting back tears. “No Met board member has spoken to me. Not one. I would have been so happy for even a midnight message: ‘We wish you the best.’ “

…”I didn’t think about the company, which has been around for 25 years,” Vilar said. “But the opera in Austria – those tickets are impossible to get!”

… Vilar said he was the son of a Cuban sugar magnate who lost everything in the 1959 revolution, but friends told The New Yorker he never lived in Cuba and was born in New Jersey to a New York sugar executive and his Irish-American wife.

And then there’s this from the New Yorker’s press releases:

In “The Opera Lover” (p. 108), James B. Stewart explores the rise and fall of Alberto Vilar, one of the most generous opera philanthropists of all time. Vilar has donated between two and three hundred million dollars to various opera venues, including the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, Plácido Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera, Valery Gergiev’s Kirov Opera, and the Royal Opera House, in London. But last year, and again last week, he was indicted, along with his business partner, Gary Tanaka, on multiple charges of money laundering and fraud against clients of their investment firm, Amerindo. Stewart writes, “After being taken into custody in Manhattan, the onetime billionaire benefactor was unable to produce bail, and he remained in jail for almost four weeks…. According to the indictment, Vilar’s chief motive for embezzling was to give all the money away.” One of Vilar’s close friends observes, “Asking Alberto for money was like offering an alcoholic a drink.”

Speaking on the record for the first time since being placed under house arrest, Vilar maintains his innocence, and tells Stewart that he has not always been completely honest about his personal history, including details of his upbringing in Cuba. After having attended an average of fifty Met performances a year, and an equal number of operas elsewhere, Vilar says, “Now it feels like I’m living in one.” In 1996, Vilar was formally named to the Met’s board, soon after which he made a pledge for twenty million dollars, which matched the largest in the opera’s history. That pledge, however, like many of those he made in the late nineties, was never fulfilled, and Vilar tells Stewart that the most trying thing has been his expulsion from the world of opera society: “I was completely abandoned…. No Met board member has spoken to me. Not one.”

Vilar tells Stewart that he doesn’t know how much he finally donated or pledged, and that he never really knew his own net worth, even at its peak; whenever he needed money for charitable contributions or other expenditures, he simply asked Tanaka, and funds were deposited into his personal account. But, he says, “All I know is I gave away ninety per cent of everything I drew down.” In 2001, the worst year in Amerindo’s history, Vilar gave away more money than he ever had before. His gift pledges exceeded a hundred million dollars. Stewart writes, “It was increasingly apparent to those on Amerindo’s staff that Vilar was making pledges of money he didn’t have and had little or no likelihood of ever fulfilling.” After Vilar’s pledge of twenty million, Stewart writes, “he insisted upon recognition,” and the Met rechristened the Grand Tier and its restaurant after him. Now, Stewart observes, “Vilar is slowly being erased from the annals of philanthropy. In 2003, the Metropolitan Opera removed his name from the Grand Tier…. He was quietly dropped as a managing director.” Opera houses around the world have followed suit.

Vilar maintains that when he was arrested he was on the brink of a financial comeback. “Everything I predicted about the Internet has come true…. I’m ready to go back to work and make money.” If convicted on all charges, Stewart writes, Vilar and Tanaka face fines of more than ten million dollars and prison terms of up to a hundred and fifty-five years. But Vilar says, “We’ll sort this out. I’ll get beyond this. I will always try to help others…. I still love opera and classical music…. The Met is not going to get my money, but it will not kill my love of music.”

While he and former partner Gary Tanaka’s movements are legally constrained to Manhattan, it is good to know at least Tanaka is at least using the time productively. Tanaka talks here to the Daily Racing Form about how he’s spending lots of time on … the ponies?

[Thanks Kyle]


  1. Bob PEarce says:

    Alberto Vilar and Gary Tanaka
    Isn’t it great that Vilar could be such a philanthropist, and that Tanaka could enjoy his horse racing.
    I am one of those small investors who believed their story and their reputation and put $40,000 of my pension funds into one of their investment funds. I was left with less than $4,000 by the time I sold out.
    So who paid for the opera? Vilar, or we porr suckers?

  2. Sue Joffray says:

    When oh when will Vilar come to trial????