The 600 million dollar man

Robert Wilson’s three-bedroom apartment is awash with colour, from walls painted in bold primaries to the orange lacquer of the kitchen cabinets to the living room filled with mid-century furniture classics in lime green and brick red.

But the investor-turned-philanthropist’s favourite area in his airy, expansive home is the long, narrow terrace 16 storeys above the lush greenery of Central Park.

From our seats in low-slung deck chairs beneath a cloudless sky, it’s easy to indulge in the illusion that we are somewhere far from the city’s bustle and noise – at least until a helicopter buzzes its way overhead, probably on its way across the Hudson River to Newark airport.

“Who needs a summer place?” Wilson says with a smile, gesturing to the lake dotted with rowboats below. “I’ve got one.”

Wilson’s interest in the natural world extends beyond the treetops visible from his windows, both geographically and financially. Much of the $600m the 84-year-old has given to charity since retiring in 1986 has gone to organisations dedicated to conservation, including the Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society, and to historic preservation through the World Monuments Fund.

Why conservation and preservation? “The idea of ‘But for my money, it would be gone forever’ appeals,” he says.

Wilson is also keen to get the biggest return on his investment, a legacy of his Wall Street days. In looking at charities, “I wanted to find areas where a lot of other people weren’t already,” he says, so that his money could make a substantial impact. As a professional investor, Wilson bet wisely on small businesses that caught his eye while shorting shares of companies he considered overvalued, amassing a fortune worth $800m at the peak of the market in 2000.

He uses that same strategy when deciding to support a scholarship fund for the city’s Roman Catholic schools, which caught his eye with a pitch promising that a $10,000 gift would send three students to school. “That’s $3,000 a kid and the New York [public school system] is $18,000. I said, that’s quite a deal.” He went on to donate $20m to the fund. “I’m an atheist,” he notes, “but I think the schools are especially good.”

When it comes to higher education, a favourite cause of many of America’s wealthiest donors, however, Wilson is characteristically blunt: “Too much private money goes into colleges.”

But the overvaluation of universities is just one of many problems Wilson has with US charitable giving. “I think the state of philanthropy in the United States is lamentable. I think it’s a disgrace,” he says.

Wilson’s bête noire is private foundations, which US tax laws require to give away 5 per cent of their assets a year – an amount he finds laughable, particularly in light of such organisations’ high operating expenses. “Basically, the rich either don’t have the interest, the nerve or the generosity to give their money away,” he says.

While Wilson has set up a charitable trust to manage his donations for tax and legal reasons, he has just one employee and has already exceeded his original goal of giving away 70 per cent of his net worth before he dies. Any remaining money is to be distributed by his executor within 10 years of his death.

Wilson brings up the battle over the Barnes Foundation, a private art museum in Pennsylvania that, in violation of its founder’s will, is being moved to a new building in central Philadelphia in a bid to make the collection more accessible. “When dead people try to impose on future generations their will, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re dead! Things change.”

Another of Wilson’s philanthropic tenets is the matching grant, which he describes as “a way of printing money” for charities. “It not only raises more money, it gets other people involved in the organisation.”

The World Monuments Fund’s Wilson Challenge, a programme launched in 1998 that seeks matching grants from foreign donors, defeated conventional wisdom among US charities, Wilson argues. “The feeling at the time was, oh, foreigners don’t give much money away, they’re not generous. To make a long story short, the grant’s been met. Easily.”

According to the fund, the challenge has raised some $195m and, as of the end of last year, had funded 178 projects to preserve landmarks in nearly 50 countries from the UK and Italy to Ethiopia and Peru.

While Wilson used to travel extensively in Europe in pursuit of his passion for opera, these days he stays closer to home. The luxury apartment tower on Central Park West where he lives is a landmark in its own right – certified by New York’s preservation commission – but is quite a bit younger than the historic buildings the World Monuments Fund has restored.

Wilson estimates the apartment is worth around $20m, a far cry from the $300,000 he paid in 1978. Then, the building was “a mess”, he says, with little maintenance done for years. “I used to have a painter almost on retainer” to fix damage from a persistent leak in the apartment above.

But as property values soared in the 1980s maintenance improved and in Wilson’s entryway today, its marble floor and the de Kooning on the wall reveal no sign of the building’s decades of disrepair.

The apartment is filled with contemporary art, including a stainless steel sculpture in the foyer, but Wilson says most of the pieces were selected by his decorator. He has bought some works through an art trust but says they have not panned out as an investment, and he doesn’t consider himself a collector. “I used to say before I retired, the only thing I collect is money,” he laughs.

The building isn’t the only thing that has improved over the decades, he says. “New York in every way I can think of has gotten better” since he arrived in 1949 as a trainee at First Boston, an investment bank later acquired by Credit Suisse. “The air is cleaner, there are more good restaurants.” The park is safer too, he adds, although weekends can be too noisy.

“When I came here, I said, ‘The place is dirty, it’s expensive, the people are unfriendly, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.’ And now it’s expensive, not dirty, and the people I think are still not friendly, but I still wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

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