Still Life With $100 Million

The question tout le monde was asking at Paris' elegant Hotel George V on Nov. 7 was this: Would Roberto Polo make a dramatic appearance? The Cuban-born financier, art collector, and international fugitive had disappeared from view in 1989, when he skipped bail in Italy. But French auctioneer Ader Tajan was to sell off the last big lot of valuables seized from Polo's apartments, including a porcelain-mounted jewel casket once owned by Marie Antoinette. Many suspected Polo might show up to bid his treasures adieu. But he was nowhere to be seen.

Polo was tucked comfortably away in Miami, where he has lived since September, 1990. Compared with the mid-1980s, when Polo, now 40, was the toast of the art world, jetting between residences in New York, Paris, Geneva, and Monaco, his new life is a quiet one. Indeed, his whereabouts have remained a mystery to most of the world.

But in Miami, Polo is scarcely in hiding. Society matron Ann Eisenhower remembers spotting him last February at a fund-raiser. He is a regular at the city's fashionable YUCA (Young, Upscale Cuban-Americans) restaurant and even has an appetizer named after him: Polo croquettes. Just what is Roberto Polo up to? Seeking "solace and peace of mind," he says, the onetime art student has become an artist again. One of his silk-screen works hangs at YUCA. But Polo says his real vocation is extracting himself from the legal troubles that have dogged him since 1988. "I'm in America now, which is a free country. I'm going to prove my innocence."

That will take some doing. In 1989, a U. S. District Court in New York entered default judgments against Polo, ordering him to pay $124 million to clients who say he dipped into their accounts to support a lavish lifestyle. Since then, valuables seized from Polo's apartments have been auctioned to pay off creditors. Switzerland in 1988 brought criminal charges against him on behalf of the same clients, and a warrant for Polo's arrest is outstanding there. Extradition papers have not been filed in the U. S., but a Swiss Ministry spokesman notes that a U. S.-Swiss treaty in the works would make it easier to return him to Switzerland. Meanwhile, Polo says the Internal Revenue Service is seeking more than $100 million from him. He will contest that at a civil trial scheduled for late 1992. Polo's lawyers say that case will give him the "opportunity to clear his name and the record."

Many of Polo's assertions sound like a novel of international intrigue. Polo contends he was framed by enemies -- in particular, Alfredo Ortiz Murias, a former employee, now dead, who he claims acted out of jealousy. Polo's wife, Rosa, was in cahoots with Murias, he says. Rosa, from whom Polo is seeking a divorce, declined comment. The only reason U. S. courts ruled against him, Polo says, is because he was jailed in Italy and couldn't defend himself.

TWISTS AND TURNS. On some points, however, Polo seems able to rebut accusations leveled against him. Although investors contend Polo wasn't given permission to invest in art, Polo says he was. To fortify his point, he offers an application to register with Swiss authorities as an art adviser and investor. A lawyer for the plaintiffs says those documents don't pertain to his clients.

All in all, Polo's narrative often appears to take twists and turns to suit the moment, often in an appeal for sympathy. He complained to BUSINESS WEEK that Rosa visited him only once in his five months in Italian jail. (Before the courts released him on bail, he had starved himself down to 85 pounds.) After Rosa's brother, Federico Suro, challenged Polo's account of the visits, the fugitive corrected his tale. He now says she visited weekly -- but only at his parents' insistence. Says Suro: 'There's reality, and there's his reality." Polo says he has a fine grip on reality.

These days, he also has a grip on a paintbrush. Polo has been doing large-scale, mixed-media works and says Florentine art dealer Luciano Paladini feels the pieces "should sell for $75,000 to $100,000 apiece." Paladini confirms that several galleries have expressed interest but says he has no idea what the work might bring. Should they fetch even a fraction of the prices Polo mentions, investors are sure to come knocking. Robert J. Reger Jr., a lawyer for many Polo creditors, says plaintiffs have netted only 25~ on the dollar so far. "The court judgment is good for 20 years," he says. "We can continue to pursue him until there's satisfaction for the entire amount." If so, Polo will be painting for much more than his own peace of mind.

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