It has been one indignity after the other for once-billionaire Sir Anthony O’Reilly, writes Tim Murphy

The last time the Lions rugby team toured New Zealand, it had one very important groupie.

Former Lions great Tony O’Reilly came Down Under in 2005 with an entourage — the grandly named International Advisory Board of his media company, which at the time owned the New Zealand Herald and media titles in Ireland, South Africa, Australia, India and Fleet St.

The swaggering O’Reilly was then a billionaire. A former chief executive and chairman of the giant US food company HJ Heinz, he had been knighted by the Queen (and though Irish, because he also qualified as a British subject he could and did use the title) and was Ireland’s richest man.

Among his party was actor Sean Connery, the wonderful ex Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, UK Tory Party grandee Kenneth Clarke, a Labour peer, Baroness Jay, former New York Mayor David Dinkins and others. Executives from his Independent News and Media (INM) empire around the world including at least one of his executive sons, also descended on Auckland for a summit of business and rugby.

They arrived in greater splendour and with almost as many hangers-on as Sir Clive Woodward’s massive Lions squad. An entire executive boardroom appointed with cutting edge facilities and technology was created at the Herald’s central Auckland headquarters to house their two day meeting, the excuse for a 20,000 km  journey for O’Reilly and co. to watch his beloved Lions team.

Prime Minister Helen Clark turned up to one of the many dinners, as did the kinds of people who now choose to be seen at meaningless soirees like the Sir Richard Branson event last Sunday in Auckland.  

O’Reilly was in town and the political, business, social and rugby leadership turned up to pay homage.

This May, when the Lions arrive again, O’Reilly will be a long way away. He will likely be in the Bahamas, at one of the last of his many fine homes.

A young Anthony O’Reilly in his rugby days. Photo: Getty Images

He is now a bankrupt, business-less, said to be reclusive and fighting international court actions that seek to un-burden him of the next of his diminishing assets – his multi-million dollar art collection.

O’Reilly’s downfall has been well documented in Ireland and the financial press of the UK and in Pittsburgh, where Heinz was based.  

It was multi-faceted, rapid and, for a man who walked the world with great pride having mastered international sport and business, it must have been astonishingly hard to endure.

Estimated to have once had personal wealth of more than US$1 billion, O’Reilly had also   married wealth – his second wife Chryss was heiress to a Greek shipping fortune. He famously paid more than $2.5m for a 40-carat diamond ring for her which once belonged to Jackie (Kennedy) Onassis.

In a few short years around the time of the Global Financial Crisis, the two biggest parts of O’Reilly’s business empire began to fragment and fall from his grasp.

With Chryss’s brother, O’Reilly had invested in Irish luxury glass and china maker Waterford Wedgwood. It foundered, not helped by declining demand for such products in Asia at the time, and an attempt to rescue it was said to have cost each of them around $400m.

At the same time, in a scenario straight from a Jeffrey Archer novel and with as much finesse, O’Reilly and his son Gavin became entangled in what became a fight to the death for the media conglomerate INM with another, flint-hard Irish billionaire named Denis O’Brien.

O’Reilly had built a sprawling international media empire. He was far from a Rupert Murdoch but he was in that lower tier of moguls, with influence in the markets they published in. In South Africa, he got to know Nelson Mandela and backed an international development programme for Africa.

None of that global munificence mattered. O’Brien prevailed, despite numerous twists and turns and Sir Tony left the board of INM, the equally charming Gavin left the chief executive’s chair, their family shareholding diluted to insignificance and their time as media moguls was over.

The jewel in the crown, the Independent newspaper in London, had been sold to a Russian oligarch, a potentially valuable shareholding in the biggest read English-language newspaper stable in India, was flicked, the South African newspapers and eventually the Australian and NZ businesses were set free.

O’Brien, a telecoms billionaire who became Ireland’s richest man, is still in control of the Irish publisher.

Only after the public business losses became evident did the private debts of Sir Anthony become known.  In 2014, an Irish judge listed the debt of O’Reilly and companies controlled by him as €195 million; he was pursued by Allied Irish bank, AIB, and had to sell his main Dublin home on Fitzwilliam Square (for €3.2m), his 750-hectare estate with a 26,000 square foot mansion called Castlemartin in County Kildare (for €26.5m), and a holiday compound at Glandore near Cork for €1.5m.

The O’Reillys also owned a chateau in France, at Deauville, but its fate is unclear. Their residence, Lissadell, in the Bahamas is in a gated community at Lyford Cay with a private beach. 

The debts culminated in bankruptcy in the Bahamas late in 2015 as AIB continued to seek information about his assets.

Sir Anthony O’Reilly in 1986, well before things started to go south. Photo: Getty Images

One effect of the bankruptcy was to stall another court case, from his longtime assistant and personal nurse Sabina Vidunas – who was on that Lions trip in 2005 . She claimed he had failed to give her millions of dollars worth of shares he had promised in Heinz and another company as her retirement fund.

At one stage in the Vidunas hearings a US court was told O’Reilly was in France and too ill to attend. Vidunas’ lawyer told the judge Sir Anthony appeared to be suffering from ‘litigationitis.”

Late last year — indignity upon indignity — O’Reilly’s furniture, antiques and “items of decorative art” from the Castlemartin property were sold at public auction in a country pub in the district, at the direction of a Bahamian court-appointed trustee.

Last weekend Ireland’s Sunday Business Post newspaper reported the ongoing bankruptcy process would see the last shares held by O’Reilly in Providence Resources, the oil exploration company he founded and that was once run by his son Tony Jr, sold.  

Further court papers indicated the bankruptcy trustee, effectively a receiver, was eyeing O’Reilly’s extensive art collection. The Irish Times newspaper last year estimated the collection to be “the most valuable private collection ever assembled in Ireland”. It said a selection of minor items had been sold discreetly in England last year and had raised about €440,000.

“The whereabouts of much of the O’Reilly collection is unknown,” the Times reported. “It includes a painting by French impressionist Claude Monet which Sir Anthony bought for $24.2m 15 years ago and several major paintings by Jack B Yeats which were shipped out of Ireland during the past decade.”

As he gazes on the Monet and looks out to sea at Lyford Cay, O’Reilly will have a view on things rugby, the Lions, and no doubt some pangs for the great era around 2005 when he was in his pomp.

Tall, tanned,  sharp-witted and dripping in that Irish charm, O’Reilly had returned to a country that in 1959 (on a combined tour with Australia), he dazzled as a red-headed, fleet-footed, tight-shorted winger who ran in 22 tries in 23 games,  

His close friend Sir Wilson Whineray, a former All Black captain and adversary in 1959, was on the board of his local company and was the subject of many an O’Reilly story, fondly told.

A marketing whizz-kid with Kerrygold Butter, Heinz and the INM companies, O’Reilly is said to have recognised growth opportunities for the global game, and pushed early for Japan to win the rights to the Rugby World Cup.  

His try-scoring for the Lions, 38 tries on two tours, remains a record. He played for Ireland between 1955 and 1970, longer than Colin Meads played for New Zealand (1957-71).

As often in these cases, O’Reilly should continue to live in some of the luxury to which he has become accustomed. Chryss O’Reilly was never a guarantor to his debts, according to Ireland’s Sunday Independent, and his business and personal losses have not impacted on her “vast personal fortune”.

There is one thing left that the creditors and vultures, the critics and schadenfreudists cannot deny him: In 2009, he was inducted in to the IRB Hall of Fame.

And the rugby community, here and afar, remembers what put him there.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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