Lily Safra at her villa in the south of France, La Leopolda, in 1991
Lily Safra at her villa in the south of France, La Leopolda, in 1991 © Slim Aarons/Getty Images

When Lily Safra was not endowing chairs at prestigious universities, she was selling them in the gilded precincts of Sotheby’s. Safra had become exceedingly wealthy through her marriages and disbursed her good fortune as a philanthropist and as an art collector, with a particular taste for France before the revolution. In 2005, the auction of the contents of one of her homes, from Fabergé cane handles to Georgian urns, raised $49mn.

That sale, said Mario Tavella, chair of Sotheby’s Europe, who was approached by Safra to organise the auction, summed up her determination and charisma rather well. The art lover, who has died aged 87, focused on the sale’s every detail, from the flower arrangements in the promotional images to the box containing the catalogues, because “she had a very clear vision and wanted to ensure . . . [it] was fully developed and delivered”. Tavella added that “she was firm but never harsh”. After the sale, she bought an iPod each for the dozens of members of staff who worked on it.

Born Lily Watkins in Brazil in 1934, to a wealthy Czech-British railway engineer and his Jewish Ukrainian-Uruguayan wife, the first decades of her life were not all 19th-century rosewood tables and weekend parties in the south of France. She divorced her first husband (hosiery fortune), while her second husband (household appliance fortune) died by suicide in 1969. Safra and her third husband (no fortune worth mentioning) split up after a fortnight.

And then there was her fourth. In 1976, Lily married the Lebanese-Brazilian Edmond J Safra, founder of Republic National Bank of New York and former banker to her second husband. During their 23-year marriage, they collected artworks and furniture, decorated houses around the world, bestowed largesse on universities and spent time at La Leopolda, their sprawling French Riviera estate.

But it came to a sudden, terrible end in December 1999. A few months after her husband, by then suffering from Parkinson’s, had sold his banking holdings to HSBC for $10.3bn, a nurse at his Monaco penthouse started a fire, apparently with the intention of saving his employer from it in order to win his favour. Instead, Edmond was asphyxiated.

With her fourth husband, the Lebanese-Brazilian banker Edmond Safra, in 1991 © Globe Photos/Zuma Press/Avalon

This tragedy provided grist for society’s rumour mill. Gossip portrayed Safra, worth $1.3bn at her death, as a black widow. A 2005 novel seemed to suggest that a character with striking similarities to Safra had killed two of her husbands. Safra’s lawyer wrote to the publisher that there was no way it could win a libel action “as Mrs Safra is not a serial murderer”. A friend of Safra’s said he regrets the unfair, seamy shadow these rumours cast, obscuring how “devoted” she was to Edmond.

The gossip also had the potential to obscure her energetic philanthropy — though her and Edmond’s names adorn everything from a children’s hospital in Israel to a chair in translational neuroscience at Imperial College London. In a charitable sleight-of-hand, she paid $21mn for a Gerhard Richter abstract painting in 2011 — then an auction record for the artist — and two months later donated it to the Israel Museum (which has an Edmond and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing).

Her gifts were not just to large institutions: she was introduced to a young woman who had founded a Rwandan orphanage and gave her $1mn from the proceeds of a Christie’s sale of her jewels. At her funeral, the rabbi recalled to one mourner that Safra used to take her driver around New York so she could give clothes to homeless people.

Safra’s friend said she was canny enough to use her socialite status “to further her philanthropic activities”, a catalyst rather than a social butterfly. There were, of course, plenty of social flutterings. Guests at her table ranged from Margaret Thatcher and Elton John to Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, former secretary-general of the UN. She presided over these gatherings as an elegant and engaging presence, conversing in six languages. An admirable quality, friends say, was that she drew out the best from her interlocutor, while remaining modest about her own views. She still bought art, paying a record $103mn for a Giacometti sculpture in 2010.

Robin Woodhead, until recently chair of Sotheby’s International and a longtime friend of Safra’s, thinks the world did not give her the credit she deserved: “Yes, she was married to a powerful man, but in her own right she was an exceptional woman and — if she had been born later — could have herself been running a major company, even a country.” The French Riviera was never quite enough for Lily Safra. Josh Spero