Lev Leviev’s $525 million purchase last week of the Times Building on West 43rd Street represents a coming-out party for the Soviet-born, Israel-based Lubavitcher diamond merchant. He now owns huge swaths of Brooklyn and a growing number of Manhattan trophies—and he’s just getting started. “We are going to expand dramatically in the next year,” says Rotem Rosen, the chief of the American branch of Leviev’s holding company, Africa-Israel. Here’s everything you need to know about the new billionaire (worth $2.6 billion, says Forbes) on the block.
Born: Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 1956.
Immigrated to Israel: 1971, having converted the family’s wealth into rough diamonds.
Sources of Fortune: Leviev has made millions in some of the most turbulent parts of the world—Russia during the tumult of 1989, Angola—in one of its murkiest industries, diamonds. He is now the world’s biggest cutter and polisher of diamonds; owns companies in a range of Israeli industries, from swimwear to steel; claims to be the biggest single player in the Russian real-estate market; and lately has been snatching up property across America.
Russia: In the nineties, according to Forbes, he was “widely believed” to have helped Russian leaders sell off their country’s diamond stockpile—something he denies. He won the favor of President Vladimir Putin over rival tycoons and turned the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which he leads and finances, into perhaps the region’s leading Jewish group.
Africa: Leviev’s alliance with Angola’s central government, which won the country’s civil war, led to his gaining primary control of the country’s rough-diamond supply in 2000. A security company contracted by Leviev was accused this year by a local human-rights monitor of participating in practices of “humiliation, whipping, torture, sexual abuse, and, in some cases, assassinations.” Leviev’s formal response to the report did not directly address the abuses but touted his charitable activities in Angola.
Jewish Charities: Leviev reportedly donates at least $30 million each year to causes associated with the Hasidic movement. He established a school for his fellow Bukharan Jews in Elmhurst, the Queens Gymnasia. He reportedly has set a goal to make it possible for all Jewish children in New York to go to religious, not public, schools.
America: Africa-Israel owns 1,700 Fina gas stations and describes itself as the country’s largest 7-Eleven franchisee.
New York City: Africa-Israel owns half of the Upper West Side landmark the Apthorp; much of the land around Brooklyn’s possibly toxic, but ready-to-gentrify, Gowanus Canal; and massive downtown holdings purchased shortly after 9/11, starting with his conversion of the JPMorgan building into Downtown by Philippe Starck. “Mr. Leviev had in his mind the idea that we, the Israeli people, have to help the U.S. in the days of crisis the same way the U.S. supports Israel,” explains Rosen. Leviev’s help: “Buying these huge gigantic buildings very, very cheap.”