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The Shady Side of Monaco

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

From Monaco's waves to its diamond-studded populace, it is truly a city that sparkles . . . at least from afar.

From Monaco's waves to its diamond-studded populace, it is truly a city that sparkles . . . at least from afar.

The principality on the Mediterranean coast of France has long been a favourite place for the ultra-rich to relax. The weather is splendid and the wealthy can be sure of meeting only the right people—that is, folk with extremely fat bank accounts.

Monaco’s many financial institutions are world famous for their discretion and reluctance to ask about the sources of money deposited in their vaults; or, as the BBC puts it, “The country . . . closely guards the privacy of its clients.”

Monaco: The Facts

  • The Grimaldi family has ruled over tiny Monaco since 1297. About 31,000 people live in Monaco, but only 6,000 have Monegasque passports. However, a daily influx of 50,000 workers from France and Italy arrives to tend to the needs of the billionaires.
  • The principality covers just over two square kilometres, making it the second smallest country in the world just behind Vatican City.
  • Monte Carlo is a section of Monaco and is home to its famous casino. The gambling palace opened in 1868, but Monegasque natives are not allowed to play games of chance there, nor even to enter the building. The country recognizes that the only winner is the casino, and it doesn’t want its nationals losing their money; that’s the job of the suckers (sorry, patrons) with deep pockets.
In 1891, Charles Wells won so big that he broke the bank at the casino but he died a pauper.

In 1891, Charles Wells won so big that he broke the bank at the casino but he died a pauper.

A Pricey Place

If you have to ask the price of real estate in Monaco, you can’t afford it. Just one example: A “studio of 23 sq m (247 sq ft) situated on the 1st floor, composed of an entrance, a shower room, main room, and kitchenette” with no sea view: €1,250,000, or $1,388,187.

Many Monegasques could not afford to live in their own country without the generous subsidies and special privileges they get from their government.

Monaco: A Magnet for “Characters”

The country has been a refuge for those who don’t have to work for a living. For centuries, European aristocrats over-wintered in its benign climate rather like migrating flocks of birds.

More recently, dethroned monarchs and dictators have found its ambiance hospitable as long as the money plundered from national treasuries doesn’t run out. Newer arrivals have been so-called Russian oligarchs; these are people who acquired the state assets of the Soviet Union in the chaos of the country’s collapse.

Writers such as Aldous Huxley, Vladimir Nabokov, Bertold Brecht, and W. Somerset Maugham were drawn to the place; its characters provided such a rich vein of human behaviour to be mined for their novels.

Maugham famously described Monaco “A sunny place for shady people.” And, Graham Greene called Monaco a haven for crime and sleaze.


Dirty Money

The French writer Honoré de Balzac made an observation about the very wealthy that has been paraphrased in English to “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”

A French parliamentary commission has concluded that Monaco’s affluence floats on ill-gotten gains. Ferdinand Marcos, who robbed The Philippines of at least $10 billion, had some of his stolen money stashed away in Monaco.

In 2005, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development blacklisted Monaco for its failure to be helpful about investigations of tax evasion. It remained blacklisted for several years.

In November 2009, a police swoop picked up several people on charges of “corruption, abuse of public funds, influence trafficking, and money laundering.”

In 2018, four people were convicted in the murder Hélène Pastor, a Monegasque property multi-billionaire. Among those sentenced to life in prison was her son-in-law.

The Russian Oligarch

When he came to the throne of Monaco in 2005, Prince Albert II promised his country would shed its unsavoury reputation. Results have been mixed; they were never likely to be anything else because of the gigantic amounts of money flowing through the principality.

Dmitry Rybolovlev is an obscenely rich Russian businessman who came by his wealth by grabbing valuable bits of state property as the Soviet Union descended into chaos in the early 1990s. He lives in a Monaco penthouse for which he paid $300 million.

Dmitry Rybolovlev.

Dmitry Rybolovlev.

In November 2018, Rybolovlev was briefly placed in police custody. The Daily Beast reported that “The detention is reportedly connected to an investigation into ‘corruption’ and ‘influence peddling’ by Monaco authorities. Monaco’s former justice minister reportedly resigned from his position due to the probe.”

Rybolovlev is also involved in a case that reads like something out of a John le Carré novel. The cast of characters involves a Swiss art dealer, a former chief of police, HSBC Private Bank officials, and the body of a banker who died in a mysterious fire, along with allegations of money laundering. “Investigations continue,” as the authorities like to noncommittally say.

Another claim to fame for Dmitry Rybolovlev is that he bought the very upscale Florida estate known as Maison de l’Amitie. In 2008, he paid $95 million for the mansion and grounds from its previous owner, Donald J. Trump. President Trump had bought the property in 2004 for $41 million.

Perhaps, one day Monaco will become squeaky clean but, until that happens it will remain a “sunny place for shady people.”

Bonus Factoids

  • On the night of January 8, 1297, a man dressed as a Franciscan monk arrived at the gates of Monaco Castle. He and his followers were permitted entry and they seized the castle. That man was Francesco Grimaldi, sometimes described as a Genoese pirate, who, after a few ups and downs, founded the dynasty that still governs the principality.
  • Monaco, a community of about 31,000 people has more than 300,000 bank accounts.
  • Monaco is bristling with 580 closed-circuit security cameras and has the highest per-capita number of police officers in the world. As a result, street crime is virtually unknown.
  • The glitz of the Monte Carlo Casino has attracted the James Bond franchise; three 007 movies have been filmed, in part, there.


  • “38 Interesting Facts about Monaco.”, April 19, 2019.
  • “The French Riviera: A Sunny Place for Shady People.” Jane Ciabattari, BBC, October 21, 2014.
  • “Police Raids in France Remind Côte d’Azur of its Sleazy History.” Lizzie Davies, The Guardian, November 27, 2009.
  • “Monaco Billionaire’s Son-in-Law Convicted over her Murder.” Lara Marlowe, Irish Times, October 18, 2018.
  • “The Dark Side of Monaco, Uncovered: Murder, Tabloid-Ready Royal Marriage, Art-World Sting Among Newest Scandals.” Dana Kennedy, Hollywood Reporter, May 14, 2015.
  • “Russian Oligarch Who Bought Donald Trump’s Mansion in Suspicious Deal May Now Own Piece of U.S. Energy Grid.” Jonathan Vankin, Inquisitr, October 15, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor