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Madoff enjoyed lifestyle of the rich and famous

BERNARD Madoff's three-bedroom apartment in the French Riviera's Cap d'Antibes has a partially obstructed sea view and overlooks the tennis courts and swimming pools of larger homes closer to the water.

The 120-square-meter apartment, one of 23 in the Chateau des Pins development, is surprisingly modest for a man who allegedly swindled people out of US$50 billion, says Bernard Collini-Lopes, an interior designer who has worked on several of the properties. He met Madoff in the shade of maritime pine trees along the walking paths between buildings.

Madoff greeted people with a friendly "bonjour" and didn't demand special attention, marking him as trustworthy, though language barriers kept most discussions simple, said locals who met him.

Those assessments jibe with descriptions of him from Palm Beach.

"I would see him holding hands with his grandchildren. He'd wave and say hello, and if he'd asked me to lend him 50 euros (US$65.86) I probably would have done it," Collini-Lopes said. "If he'd looked like Bruce Willis, people probably wouldn't have trusted him. It's silly, I know, but true."

Madoff owned the upstairs apartment in a white villa with terra cotta roof tiles, on the back edge of the property, according to a person who works there. The yard below the closed green shutters is littered with plastic children's tricycles, a trampoline and a blue swing set.

Billionaires, celebrities

Antibes sits along the Mediterranean Sea on France's southeast corner between Nice and Cannes. It has traces of 2,000-year-old Roman walls and a Pablo Picasso museum, located in the Chateau Grimaldi where the artist once lived.

Cap d'Antibes is known for billionaires and celebrities, including Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

Prices in Madoff's neighborhood have at least doubled since he bought the apartment six or seven years ago, according to Guillaume Turquois, the real estate agent who handled the sale. It's probably worth about 10,000 euros a square meter, he said, putting it at about 1.2 million euros.

Madoff and his wife told lawyers for Irving H. Picard, the trustee overseeing the liquidation of his firm, that they were "willing to relinquish many of their assets," including the Antibes property, Madoff's lawyer, Ira Sorkin, wrote in a January 7 letter to a federal judge.

Picard didn't respond to a phone call or e-mail seeking comment. Sorkin said the receiver is reviewing all the assets, declining to comment further.

Nothing haughty

"There was nothing haughty about him, no special requests and he was always very kind and respectful of the staff," said Philippe Bensimon, owner of Les Vieux Murs, a restaurant on the ramparts of old Antibes. The restaurant has a view over the sea toward Cap d'Antibes. Its lunches range from 31 euros to 41 euros. The New Year's Day menu included beef Wellington, lobster salad in the shell and line-fished sea bass.

Madoff dined at Les Vieux Murs two or three times a year, Bensimon said, adding that he began to recognize the New Yorker as a regular about three years ago.

Olivier Darcq, a spokesman for the Antibes Juan-les-Pins mayor's office, said no one in the city government had been aware Madoff owned an apartment there until his arrest in December.

Madoff's firm collapsed last month after he told his sons it was a US$50 billion Ponzi scheme, according to a complaint filed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Shortly before he was arrested, Madoff allegedly told employees he had US$200 million to US$300 million left, the complaint said.

The Cap d'Antibes apartment is listed in the phone book under the name of his wife, Ruth. It was sold with solid, if unspectacular, fixtures and appliances, Turquois said.

"He and his wife came to me looking for a nice apartment," Turquois said. "A house is too problematic. They just wanted something where they could come for a week, then put the key under the door, leave and not have to worry about it."

Other celebrities in the area cut higher profiles. Earlier this year Abramovich was blocked from building a private dock at the Chateau de la Croe, which would have jutted 20 meters into the sea, said Alain Bassani, who lives across the street from the Chateau des Pins property.

"Having rich foreigners move here doesn't bother me," said Bassani, who has lived in Antibes for two decades.

"What does bug me is that they cut down the local pines to put in swimming pools and lawns."

Even the Chateau des Pins, named for the trees, has seen about half of them disappear over the past 15 years, he said.

"Our children have a game here of spotting the rich and famous, just like kids spot license plates during a long car drive," Collini-Lopes said. His favorite encounter was during a bicycle ride around the cape when he almost ran into Madonna jogging with two bodyguards.

Driving sharply downhill toward the tip of the cape, past the luxury Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc to the Napoleon Museum, gives a view over the beach to the region's biggest attraction, even in rain-soaked January: the azure sea.

"Why did Madoff buy an apartment here?" Turquois said.

"People say this is one of the most beautiful corners of the earth."


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