Notre-Dame de Paris

I was fortunate during my career in business to spend a lot of time in Paris. Not much was free time, but I managed to squeeze in visits to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and more – as Paris is the ultimate “walking” city. Imagine being faced with this dilemma: you are in Helsinki, Finland on a Friday in March; you finish (no pun intended) work, and are due to be in Paris on the following Monday. Would you spend the weekend in Helsinki? Or opt for Paris? Not sure why I called it a “dilemma.” Spent all of that Saturday in the Louvre. Sunday at d’Orsay.

Unfortunately, I did not see Notre-Dame de Paris from the inside, but marvelled at its beauty from the outside, and marvelled too at the length of the lines of people waiting to get inside. It was truly a sad day on April 15 with the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame.

This is some of what I missed – the magnificent stained glass – virtually irreplaceable. To me perhaps the real marvel of Notre-Dame is its history – going back nine centuries. What a remarkable feat of engineering and construction considering the tools available to man in the mid-1100’s. And then there is the procession of events – including the crowning of Napoleon as Emperor of France, the Requiem Mass of Charles de Gaulle, and who could forget Philippe Petit, who in 1971 secretly strung a wire between the towers of Notre-Dame and tight-rope-walked across it.

Notre-Dame above, with its towers, as I recall.

I will not dwell on the fire here, as much has been featured in the news. But it was reassuringly good news that President Macron of France quickly stepped forward to say that Notre-Dame would be restored to its splendour, and within five years.

It was also heart-warming to learn that in the two days following the fire, more than 845 million euros were pledged to re-build Notre-Dame. Total S.A., Apple, The Disney Company, L’Oréal, LVMH and Kering are among the prominent contributors. I thought it might be interesting to look into some of these companies. Total is a major oil and gas company; Apple and Disney we all know; and so too perhaps, L’Oréal, for its cosmetics. But what of LVMH and Kering?

LVMH, or Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, is a French luxury goods conglomerate, and it has offered 200 million euros to help re-construct Notre-Dame. Christian Dior S.E. owns LVMH and Bernard Arnault is the Chairman of Christian Dior and Chairman and CEO of LVMH. According to Bloomberg, Monsieur Arnault is worth more than 90 billion dollars.

That is M. Arnault above, with his wife, Hélène Mercier-Arnault. M. Arnault is 70; his wife is not. Madame Mercier-Arnault is a Canadian and is a renowned concert pianist. Nice going Bernard.

You may not know LVMH as a company, but you will know some of its brands. The impressive list includes wines and spirits (Dom Perignon, Hennessy, Glenmorangie, Cloudy Bay); fashions (Dior, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Thomas Pink); watches (Bulgari, Tag Heuer); cosmetics (Guerlain, Dior); and retailing (Sephora and Le Bon Marché). And that is only a partial list.

Kering? Kering S.A. is another luxury goods manufacturer (the French seem to have a lock on luxury goods). In true French fashion, Kering divides its businesses into “Houses,” which sounds so civilized and so much better than “Subsidiaries.” So Kering has the “House of Gucci,” and the “House of Saint Laurent.” Then there are Alexander McQueen, Boucheron and Brioni. Thirty years ago I walked into the Brioni store in New York, looking for a blazer. The one I liked was 1600 bucks. Fortunately, Macy’s was just a short cab ride away.

The Chairman and CEO of Kering is François-Henri Pinault. M. Pinault is reportedly worth about 31 billion dollars. He is married to the actress, Salma Hayek.

M. Pinault and Ms. Hayek above. Not to be unkind, but his tux looks to be off-the-rack. She looks just fine.

M. Pinault however, came up with 100 million euros for Notre-Dame.

In the photo following are Liliane Bettencourt and her daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers. Madame Bettencourt passed away in 2017, leaving her fortune to her daughter, thus making Madame Bettancourt Meyers the richest woman in the world. The Bettencourt family has long owned L’Oréal, the leading global cosmetics company. There is a lot of interesting history with the Bettencourts and for fear of having my “blogue’ read like a gossip column about the rich and famous, I will shut it down here. But kudos to the Bettencourts and L’Oréal for pledging 200 million euros for Notre-Dame.

Well, maybe one more thing.

In 1831 the French novelist, Victor Hugo, wrote “Notre-Dame de Paris” (which we know as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”), hoping to raise awareness and funds for a restoration of the cathedral, as it had fallen into disrepair. Hugo wrote, “it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant , before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.” He was successful in his activism and soon thereafter restorative work began.

Above, Charles Laughton in the 1939 movie, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” There have been numerous movies made of the Hugo novel, including an animated Disney version. But the Laughton version wears well.

Ken Griffin

I decided this winter that I should take painting lessons. Painting has long been an interest, and I thought it might be time to see if I had any talent. How difficult could it be? As of this writing I am halfway through the lessons, and progress, albeit slow, is being made.

And no, that is not one of my paintings. But it hits to the point; how difficult can it be?

The painting pictured above, is named 17A, and it was painted by Jackson Pollock, the American “drip” artist. 17A sold in 2016 for $200 million.

The painting pictured below is not mine either. This painting, called “Interchange,” was completed in 1955 by the Dutch-American artist, Willem de Kooning. It sold for $20.68 million in 1989, and again in 2015 for $300 million.

One more to show you (and again, not mine). “False Start” was painted in 1959 by the American Jasper Johns. It sold at auction in 1988 for $17 million; and subsequently sold for $80 million in 2006.

It was described as “an explosion of colours, bright and frenetic, among which we can see stencilled labels such as ‘wrong,’ ‘gray,’ ‘orange,’ ‘red.’ The artwork is entirely dedicated to colour in this case – there is no subject, just different components that aimed to break the artist’s habits the he saw as certain limitations.” Whatever. Mr. Johns has (he will be 89 this year) a reputation for less vibrant, moodier productions.

The three paintings were purchased by a gentleman named Kenneth C. Griffin. Mr. Griffin is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the American hedge fund, Citadel. Citadel has something like $28 billion under management, and in 2018 Citadel paid Mr. Griffin $865 million. His net worth is estimated to be $9.9 billion.

Mr. Griffin is not shy about spending his fortune. Apart from the $580 million he dropped on these three works of art, he is heavily into real estate. In 2018, he purchased four floors of a condominium building in Chicago (Citadel’s home base) for $58 million. The four floors were described as “raw” and will need about $25 million worth of build out. Mr. Griffin already owned three residences in Chicago for which he paid $47 million.

What next? Why not buy the most expensive piece of real estate for sale in the United States? Mr. Griffin paid $238 million for a 23,000 square foot condominium in the New York City high rise known as 220 Central Park South. And again, the price is just for the “raw’ space or a “white box” as they say in NYC. It will take at least another $25 million to make the place liveable. Mr. Griffin owns the 50th to 53rd floors. 220 Central Park South is pictured below – the tall building on the Park. One newspaper article described the residence as a “place for him to stay” while on business in New York. I know for a fact there are actually some really nice hotels in NYC.

Oh yes, Mr. Griffin bought another pied-à-terre in early 2019, dropping $122 million for a townhouse in London. Then there is a Miami Beach property for which he paid $60 million. His neighbour in Miami is Kim Kardashian – how lucky is that! And he has homes in Aspen, CO and Hawaii.

To be fair, Mr. Griffin is not generous only to himself. He has donated $150 million to his alma mater, Harvard, and dispensed at least $500 million to charitable causes. I wonder how he would feel about making a donation to the Qualicum Beach Aspiring Artists Society (QBAAS)?

In 2015, Mr. Griffin split from his wife of 11 years, and perhaps this prompted his real estate buying spree. After an acrimonious negotiation, they reached a divorce settlement. As far as I know, the ex-Mrs. Griffin (pictured with Mr. Griffin in happier times below) is on the market and would not be a bad catch.

Of note: The painting pictured below, “Flag 1983,” is another Jasper Johns creation. It sold at auction in 2014 for just over $36 million. Its dimensions are about 12 inches by 18 inches. If my calculations are right, the painting cost someone approximately $167,000 per square inch. Yes, I know. It’s stupid. But I am beginning to believe my new found interest in painting has potential.

And one final comment: It may seem to some that this blog entry is about money. It isn’t. It’s about the absence of sanity.

Sir Nicholas Winton

Canadians will know Joe Schlesinger well. Mr. Schlesinger was an executive producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) beginning in 1966, but quickly found his niche as a foreign correspondent for the CBC in such disparate locations as Hong Kong, Berlin, Washington, Central America and more. He was born in Austria in 1928 to a Jewish family, and raised in Czechoslovakia. In 1938, after Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germany, Mr. Schlesinger and his younger brother, Ernest, were sent to England, in the “kindertransport,” that was the brainchild of Nicholas Winton. Mr. Winton, a British citizen and businessman, arranged for the transport of 669 Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia to Britain and to Sweden. Our Mr. Schlesinger lost his parents to the Holocaust, but made the most of his opportunity as a distinguished journalist for some 40 years. He passed away at age 90 on the 11th of February this year. That is “Joe” below with the U.S. Capitol Building in the background.

Sir Nicholas George Winton was born in 1909 in England to parents of German Jewish origins (the family name being Wertheim). He got an early start in banking and became a stockbroker; work that took him to continental Europe. In November, 1938, “Kristallnacht” (“the Night of Broken Glass”); a pogrom in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland, was carried out by paramilitary forces and civilians. The result was the destruction of Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues, the murder of Jews and the transport of thousands of Jews to concentration camps. Below: One of the more than 200 synagogues that were destroyed during Kristallnacht.

It was Kristallnacht that moved Nicholas Winton to action. He established an organization to assist children of Jewish families – families at risk from the Nazis. Despite the challenges of transporting the children from Czechoslovakia and through the Netherlands, 669 children were moved to the United Kingdom and some to Sweden. Many of their parents did not survive the war. There was to be another group of 250 children to be sent abroad, but their fate was sealed with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and with that the beginning of the Second World War. Of the 250 that were left behind, only two survived the war.

Nicholas Winton above, with one of his charges.

By all accounts, Nicholas Winton was a humble man. It wasn’t until 1988 that his wife found a scrapbook that detailed the names of the “kindertransport” children, their parents, and that names of those who took the children under their care. That same year, in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s television programme, “That’s Life,” Nicholas was invited to be a member of the audience, and unbeknownst to him, his scrapbook was unveiled, and “kindertransport” explained. In a truly moving tribute, the programme’s host, Esther Rantzen, asked members of the audience whether anybody owed theirs lives to Nicholas Winton. More than two dozen came forward to acknowledge and to thank him. (If you have 4 minutes and 41 seconds, go to youtube, and search for, “Story of Nicholas Winton BBC That’s Life,” and I guarantee you will be brought to tears).

In 2003, Nicholas Winton was knighted by the Queen. His courage and actions have been widely recognized by the Czech government, and in his home town of Maidenhead, England, a statue of Sir Nicholas was unveiled in 2010 by Theresa May, then Britain’s Home Secretary.

Deservedly, Sir Nicholas lived a long life, passing away in 2015 at the age of 106. Sir Nicholas is shown below greeting Joe Schlesinger.