When Roman Abramovich first laid eyes on Château de la Croë it bore little resemblance to the palatial mansion it is today.
After three decades of abandonment following a fire in 1970 that had reduced the once-magnificent Riviera villa to a burned-out shell, its scorched exterior was beyond dilapidated.
Many of the trees that surrounded it had been lost to the flames, and the château’s once manicured lawns were parched and overgrown.
Inside, rooms that had echoed to the repartee of kings, aristocrats and statesmen were littered with the detritus of the squatters who had come and gone in the intervening years.
But the Russian oligarch knew the house had a grand pedigree, with its former occupants including Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, and he had the vision — and cash — to see how it could be returned to its former glory.
Abramovich duly parted with the $19.4 million asking price for the château, its 18 acres of grounds and view of the Mediterranean.
The permit for renovation was granted in 2004, and after four years of painstaking work La Croë had been restored to its past opulence.
Today, cypress trees flank the staircase that leads to its pillared entranceway, arched picture windows grace its pristine façade and a 15 m pool takes pride of place on the roof.
Yet the château and its surrounds are no longer something Abramovich and his family and friends can enjoy, given the asset freeze and EU travel ban to which he’s now subject.
Last week, this jewel in the crown of the Chelsea owner’s property portfolio was seized by the French government as Russia’s oligarchs continue to pay the price for their Kremlin links following Vladimir Putin’s decision to send his tanks into Ukraine.
Under the terms of the sanctions imposed on Abramovich and his fellow billionaires, it can be neither sold nor rented out.
Given the authorities on the Channel island of Jersey froze more than $6.8 billion of his ever-dwindling assets on the same day, leaving him dangerously short of cash, for Abramovich this was a particularly galling aspect of the order.
Not least because the château has ballooned in value to $117 million since he acquired it.
By the time Abramovich bought Château de la Croë, the Riviera’s two headlands — Cap d’Antibes and Cap Ferrat — and the nearby ‘Bay of Billionaires’ had been colonized by dozens of wealthy Russians.
Abramovich’s business partner, the late Boris Berezovsky, had acquired the Villa Le Clocher.
Commodities tycoon Andrey Melnichenko snapped up the luxurious Villa Altair, where he paid Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera to perform at his wedding in 2005. And steel magnate Viktor Rashnikov took up residence at Villa Nellcote, the Belle Époque mansion where the Rolling Stones recorded their seminal album, Exile on Main Street.
This influx of Russian cash caused the prices of high-end properties in the area to skyrocket from about $22,000 per square foot in 2000 to as much as $55,000 by 2006.
The free-spending oligarchs’ convoys of black limousines — up to six cars long — became a familiar sight to locals. After spending the morning cruising on their yachts, they would moor at 3pm and converge on the Voile Rouge bar on St Tropez’s Pampelonne Beach.
The Voile Rouge was opened in the 1960s by Paul Tomaselli, a perma-tanned playboy in a white ruffled shirt and budgie-smugglers, who would hold court below a stucco penis adorned with wings.
One observer compared the scene to ‘a Fellini cast party on Dexedrine and Viagra’.
Over the years, the vulgarity and excess of the men from Moscow has alienated many of the locals.
‘Everyone hates them because they are so rude,’ says one. ‘Fancy restaurants started printing their menus in Russian but had to end it after locals stopped going because they didn’t want to put up with their behavior. Since the invasion of Ukraine, of course, they have become even more reviled.’
One observer compared the scene to ‘a Fellini cast party on Dexedrine and Viagra.’
How very different life was almost a century ago when the British newspaper magnate Sir William Pomeroy Burton, a former general manager of Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers, commissioned a French architect called Armand-Albert Rateau to design him a Mediterranean villa.
The house, with traditional shutters and red-tiled roof, was completed in 1927. But Sir William soon found a villa he preferred at Cap Martin and within ten years Château de la Croë was on the market.
Its secluded location on the tip of Cap d’Antibes, a peninsula that stretches into the Mediterranean just east of Cannes, made it an attractive home for a high-profile couple looking for privacy.
Its park-like grounds protected it from sightseers and no other house could be seen from its windows, which on one side faced the sea — so only those on yachts making their way between the resorts of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins could indulge their curiosity.
A French socialite called Daisy Fellowes, who had married into the British aristocracy, brought the house to the attention of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII and his new wife, divorcée Wallis Simpson, in 1938.
The couple, who had married in France a year earlier — of 300 guests invited, only 16 turned up — took an instant shine to the place and signed a two-year lease.
It was certainly a home fit for a former king: apart from its 12 bedrooms, swimming pool, two bathing pavilions, and tennis court, La Croë had a dining room that seated 24, and a drawing room lined with tapestries and painted panels.
Its crowning glory was a bathroom featuring a 20-carat gold gilded bathtub shaped like a swan.
The Duke of Windsor’s own furniture, silver and porcelain were shipped from England, and the Duchess recalled in her memoirs the ‘avalanche of crates, linen baskets, furniture, trunks of clothing, bales of draperies, chests of silver’ that covered the drive and lawns.
She and her interior designer Lady Mendl spared no expense in La Croë’s renovation.
Soon, the château rivaled Buckingham Palace in splendor, with elaborate mirrors, gold and white moldings and yellow, blue and white draperies filling the rooms.
The Duchess spent months touring shops and auction rooms selecting antiques, accumulating a collection of paintings, ornaments, silken sheets and pillowcases which she had monogrammed with the couple’s initials.
Author Rebecca West was certainly impressed: ‘There are not many women who can pick up the keys to a rented house, raddled by long submission to temporary inmates, and make it look as if a family of good taste had been living there for two centuries.’
The Riviera’s idle rich came to pay court, grateful for the chance to mix with the royal couple.
The Duchess recalled in her memoirs the ‘avalanche of crates, linen baskets, furniture, trunks of clothing, bales of draperies, chests of silver.’
Quite what the Duke’s French guests made of their host’s sometimes eccentric habits is anyone’s guess, however. In her memoirs, a bemused Duchess of Devonshire recalled one particularly memorable performance by the Duke.
‘He wore a kilt at dinner with all its extras, including laced-up pumps and a dirk [traditional dagger] in his stocking,’ she wrote. ‘A piper went round the dinner table playing his deafening music — more suited to the glens than the Cote d’Azur in the heat of July.’
At the outbreak of World War II, the Windsors’ suspected Nazi leanings meant they were ordered to leave Europe.
After seeing out the war in the Bahamas, where the Duke was given the title of governor, they returned to La Croë and, in 1948, threw a party to celebrate the 40th wedding anniversary of Winston and Clementine Churchill.
Given the former prime minister once issued a veiled threat to have the Duke court-martialed when he dragged his feet over agreeing to go to the Bahamas, this was a generous gesture. But Churchill, who was between stints at Downing Street at the time, came away with mixed feelings.
Afterwards he wrote: ‘The Windsors are pathetic, but seem happy … the poor Duke, charming, now has to fight for his place in conversation.’
For all the grandeur, however, a serpent lurked in the Windsors’ paradise: boredom. With no formal role to distract him, the Duke complained about the lack of golf courses in the South of France and, in 1949, the couple relocated to Paris, where they became the toast of high society.
But La Croë would retain its appeal for royals, becoming the home of a succession of monarchs — Leopold III of Belgium, Umberto, the ex-King of Italy, and King Farouk of Egypt.
In 1950, it was acquired by the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. He and his wife Athina Livanos lived there for seven years until she found him in bed with her friend, the socialite Jeanne Rhinelander.
La Croë was then acquired by Onassis’s brother-in-law and business rival, Stavros Niarchos, who bought it — ironically — for his wife Eugenia Livanos, Athina’s sister.
After the fire in the 1970s, La Croë was sold to an offshore holding company but came on the market again in 1998.
Given the scale of the renovation required, only an extremely wealthy individual would be prepared to take it on — step forward Roman Abramovich.
He spent an eye-watering $162 million on the installation of a gym and cinema in the basement, that rooftop pool and custom-made furniture and fittings. No expense was spared when it came to the grounds either.
Peter Wirtz, the son of noted Belgian landscape designer Jacques Wirtz, was brought in to lay out the gardens, which were planted with Californian and Mediterranean species.
In the South of France spring has sprung and La Croë’s acres are coming into their own. But this is a vista denied to Abramovich, who frets in Moscow over the future of his fast-diminishing empire.
His old friend Putin appears to have no time for his high-profile attempts at peace-making and the West is growing ever more hawkish in its pursuit of his ill-gotten gains — but perhaps Abramovich can console himself with the thought that he has proved a worthy addition to the list of colorful owners who have enjoyed the Riviera’s most notorious château.
Dominic Midgley is a London-based journalist and the executive features editor at the Daily Mail