Argentina’s Newest Billionaire Wonders Whether Gains Will EndureBy
Consultatio has more than doubled in the past 12 months
Kitesurfing developer calls his art buying an ’illness’
Argentina has just created another billionaire. And he isn’t sure it’ll last.
Eduardo Costantini, the majority shareholder of Consultatio SA, has a net worth of $1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, after shares of the nation’s biggest publicly traded real estate company more than doubled in the past year.
“It’s not nice to be named as a billionaire,” Costantini, 70, said over cups of espresso at his office in the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires, or Malba, which he founded in 2001. “What if your stock is down 50 percent and you are no longer a billionaire?”
Like fellow moguls Jorge Horacio Brito and Marcos Galperin, Costantini has benefited as the Merval index has jumped 59 percent in 12 months with investors embracing the finance-friendly policies of President Mauricio Macri.
At the same time, Costantini said, the gains may be fleeting. Argentina is in a recession. Galperin’s net worth slipped below $1 billion last week after partner EBay Inc. said it is selling part of its stake in his MercadoLibre Inc. Costantini points to neighboring Brazil, where prominent fortunes have declined as Latin America’s largest economy struggles to move past a political crisis that resulted in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
Costantini, whose passions include kitesurfing as well as collecting art, scored his first big deal when he used profits from stock market trading in the 1970s to buy a plot of land and quadrupled his money in a few months. He then set up a brokerage firm, Consultatio, in 1980, and scored millions more by cashing out on an investment in publicly traded Banco Frances. After selling out of the lender, he began making real estate investments, building several Buenos Aires towers and Nordelta, a gated community 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of the city that houses 30,000 people.
He also has a 45 percent stake in the holding company for Consultatio’s U.S. projects, including Oceana Bal Harbour, the $1.3 billion luxury mega resort in Miami that’s nearing completion. In Uruguay, he built a controversial circular bridge designed by architect Rafael Vinoly, that guarantees to bring a development boom to his corner of the beach near the chic resort town of Punta del Este.
It was Costantini’s love for art that helped lift him up when he was struggling to recover from a 2003 kite surfing accident. He fractured a few vertebrae after wind threw him against the rocks of a lake at his Nordelta development. Laid up in the hospital for months, the first place he went after being released was to an exhibit for Argentine artist Jorge de la Vega at the Malba.
“To see that was like a miracle,” he said of the painting Rompecabezas, one of the works that now hangs as part of Malba’s permanent collection. “You value life, once you recover.”
At the museum’s 15th anniversary celebration in September, art aficionados sipping local Malbecs inspected the declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents on the brutalities of Latin American dictatorships that Chilean artist Voluspa Jarpa gathered and hung from the high ceilings of the museum’s main hall.
Young Portenos, as Buenos Aires residents are known, bounced to a DJ on an open-air balcony in a party framed by some of Latin America’s finest artistic gems: Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait with monkey and parrot, Fernando Botero’s voluminous figures in “The Widowers,” and Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral’s “Abaporu,” which she gave as a birthday gift to her husband, the writer Jose Oswald de Souza Andrade.
At his Malba office last month, the billionaire explained how he donated more than 200 pieces of art to create the museum in 2001, and then started a new collection he says is worth tens of millions of dollars. Along the way he set the record price for a piece of Latin American art when he bought a Diego Rivera this year for $16 million, the latest in a string of purchases he admits is a bit like hoarding.
"It’s like an illness," he said of the art buying.
The risks of building mega fortunes in Latin America’s most volatile economies aren’t easy to ignore. A realist painting that hangs at the Malba is a reminder for the museum’s visitors of the destitution that Argentina has faced. Painted in 1934, Antonio Berni’s “Manifestacion” portrays the faces of dozens of weary Argentines protesting hunger and unemployment.
Despite his reservations, Costantini does seem bemused by the prospect of reaching the top of the economic pyramid, even if he suspects it may be ephemeral. Asked how it feels to be so rich, he giggles, and after an hour talking about art, kite surfing and how he amassed his wealth, waits for his press adviser to step out of hearing range before reaching out enthusiastically for the hand of his guest.
“So, I’m a billionaire?” he said, grinning widely.