Joseph Safra is the richest banker in the world, according to Forbes.

And, incidentally, the name Safra means yellow, or gold, in Arabic.

Convenient. Especially since the illustrious family has had their hand in the gold trade since the Ottoman Empire, facilitating trade throughout the Middle East.

Notorious for their stable yet clandestine banking operations, the mysterious Safra family continues today as a fortress of banking successes.

But the real question on everyone’s mind is this: how has such an illustrious family, at times seeped in scandal, managed to remain so mysterious to the public eye. And what transpired to cause the untimely death of its golden boy, Edmond Safra?

The Safra dynasty started in the Ottoman Empire with Joseph Safra’s great-great grandfather

The Safra dynasty, as it’s known today, was born with banking mogul Joseph Safra’s (b. 1939) great-great grandfather well over a century ago.

The Lebanese Jewish family became the most trusted bankers of the Ottoman Empire, most notable for facilitating trade between Alexandria, Aleppo and Istanbul. 

Source: The Guardian

When the Empire fell apart, Joseph’s father, Jacob, fled to Beirut to start another bank

When the Empire fell apart, Joseph's father, Jacob, fled to Beirut to start another bank

Beirut’s Gran Serail Solidere, 1930

Wikimedia Commons

When the Ottoman empire began to unravel at the beginning of the twentieth century, Jacob Safra (father of Joseph and brother Edmond Safra) separated himself from the family business, Safra Freres et Cie. to open the Jacob E. Safra Bank in Beirut.

Jacob’s son Edmond joined the business at the ripe young age of 16 and quickly took over the institution’s precious metals division.  

Source: The Guardian

After WWII the Safras changed their base of operation to Brazil, but they kept their tradition of mystery

In 1952 Jacob switched his base of operation to São Paulo, Brazil, opening his first official Brazilian operation in 1955: Safra SA (now the Banco Safra de Investimento).

The Safras came to be known for their discretion, keeping all formal records in an ancient Arabic script known only to the Middle East’s well-educated Sephardic communities.

(Today Banco Safra is operated today by Edmond’s younger siblings, Moises and Joseph)

Source: The Guardian

With his reputation built, Edmond Safra headed to Switzerland to start the Trade Development Bank

By 1956, Edmond, now 24 years old, traveled back across the Atlantic to found the Trade Development Bank in Geneva.

This is where young Edmond’s prowess really began to shine.

Beginning with only $1 million, the bank grew to be the center of the family empire with assets surpassing $5 billion by the early 1980s.

Source: Businessweek

In 1966 he founded what was to be his most successful American operation, the Republic National Bank of New York

In 1966 he founded what was to be his most successful American operation, the Republic National Bank of New York

Quickly after his success in Geneva, Safra came back to the Americas to try his luck once again.

In 1966 he founded what was to be his most successful American operation, the Republic National Bank of New York.

And successful it was. By the mid-1980s the bank held the third largest share of branch operations in the New York metropolitan area, right behind Citigroup and Chase Manhattan.

Source: Los Angeles Times

In the 1980s, the family’s name was thrown into the spotlight when Edmond was forced to sell the Trade Development Bank to American Express

The Safras, who had by and large avoided scandal for centuries, got their first taste in the early 1980s.

The Latin American debt crisis forced Edmond to sell the Trade Development Bank (TDB) to American Express for a cool $650 million, a deal that would haunt the banker for years.

Source: Washington Post

The deal went sour, though, and American Express started a smear campaign against the Safras.

The deal went sour, though, and American Express started a smear campaign against the Safras.

After a mess of costly post-acquisition problems, American Express refused to let Edmond buy TDB back. In reaction, Safra opened a new bank that would be in direct competition to TDB, a move that led American Express on a worldwide smear campaign against Safra.

By 1989 and a few PR-nightmares later, American Express publicly apologized and donated $8 million to a charity of Safra’s choosing. 

Source: Washington Post

Edmond’s personal life was less fraught. He was afraid of gold diggers and was a bachelor until age 44.

It’s Edmond’s personal life where things really start to get interesting.

Unmarried until age 44, he was well-aware that being one of the world’s most successful bankers meant the very real threat of a gold-digging wife. Edmond’s brothers disapproved of his apprehension, hoping that the family’s golden boy would have a son to carry on Edmond’s dream of a thousand-year-old Safra bank. 

Source: Vanity Fair 

Then came Lily Monteverde, and everything changed

Edmond Safra met Lily Monteverde (as she was then known) in 1969 when she lost her second husband, Alfredo Monteverde, to suicide. 

Lily, already a wealthy Brazilian heiress, sought financial counsel for her newly-inherited Monteverde fortune. She got that, and more.

Source: Vanity Fair 

Lily, a Brazilian heiress, was wealthy in her own right, but the brothers weren’t convinced she was genuine

Lily, a Brazilian heiress, was wealthy in her own right, but the brothers weren't convinced she was genuine


Although Lily’s already massive fortune led Edmond to believe that she was seeing him for the right reasons, his brothers remained unconvinced. 

Not only was she beyond childbearing age, but she was also under some scrutiny for the suicide of her husband. This was not the woman for Edmond, the Safra brothers said. 

Edmond listened to his brothers and broke off the relationship, returning to New York.

Source: Vanity Fair 

Lily and Edmond were married anyway, but not without a 600-page pre-nup

However, something clicked in Edmond and he and Lily were back together by the winter of 1972.

Most attribute the change of heart to his discovery of Lily’s third marriage to Moroccan businessman Samuel H. Bendahan, which transpired not long after their initial breakup. Although the marriage only lasted two months, it was enough to catch Edmond’s eye and the two were formally married in 1976. 

Their pre-nuptial agreement was 600-pages long. 

Source: Vanity Fair


The newlyweds were quick to snap up one of the most expensive estates on the planet: the French Riviera’s La Leopolda

Lily and Edmond lived a life of luxury, with homes across the globe, including the celebrated Villa La Leopolda on the French Riviera.

(La Leopolda was reportedly purchased in 2008 by an unnamed Russian billionaire for somewhere around $736 million.)

Sources: The Observer and BBC News 

But they didn’t forget about those less fortunate.

Even with their extravagent taste for real estate, the couple was generous, very generous.

The Safras gave millions upon millions of dollars to religious, educational, cultural and medical organizations around the world.

Source: The Guardian

Some of their most notable contributions include the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York City…

…the Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital in Tel Hashomer…

…and buckets of money for the American University of Beirut, Yeshiva University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Then it all went south—Edmond Safra was murdered in his Monaco apartment

In December of 1999 Edmond was found dead in his Monaco home.

The cause: Arson.  

Source: Vanity Fair

Although Edmond’s nurse was found guilty of the murder, others have their own ideas about who killed the Billionaire

Although one of Safra’s nurses—an American named Ted Maher—was arrested for the crime, there are plenty of rumors about who actually started the fire. 

Source: Vanity Fair

Some say it was the Russian Mafia

Others are suspicious of his wife, Lily

Guilty or not, Lily kept her husband’s legacy strong with philanthropic work

Unaffected by such murderous accusations, Lily Safra continued her philanthropic work in full force. 

She recently auctioned off $38 million of jewels for charity in a Christie’s auction, "Jewels for Hope."

Source: Forbes

As for the brothers? They’re keeping the family business going, one billion at a time

Far less infamous than their late brother, Joseph and Moises have held on to Banco Safra, leading it successfully into the twenty-first century.

So successfully, in fact, that Joseph found his place on this year’s Forbes World Billionaire list as the richest banker in the world. 

Source: Forbes

And Joseph, the world’s richest banker, has a few plans of his own

And Joseph, the world's richest banker, has a few plans of his own

Safra Square in Jerusalem

At the age of 73, Joseph is still going strong. 

Just last year he bought the Swedish Bank Sarasin for $1.1 billion and $285 million of office space on Madison Avenue. There’s no stopping the Safras. 

Source: Forbes

How about some American royalty instead…