HE made his name selling 18th-century French antiques from Queen St, Woollahra to clientele that included Australia’s most famous antique clock collector, former prime minister Paul Keating.
But when antiques dealer Andre Fink and his wife Cecile pursued their dream of building a lavish chateau on Wallis Island, it was his “folly”, not the bank, which is to blame for the financial misfortune that befell the couple, a judge has ruled in a multimillion-dollar court judgment.
Chateau Le Marais, on Wallis Island, had been the Fink’s labour of love for close to two decades, but the cost of building the faux chateau on a 105-hectare estate, with its own jetty and a 1.5-kilometre beach, meant bank funding was not enough.
No expense was spared on the chateau, which was shaped by European craftsmen. They included sculptors and master stone masons, for features like the Sphinx-like statues that guard the entrance.
Fink’s vast antiques collection helped fund the development, which would serve as their home, “nest egg” and “show room for up-market clients”, according to court documents.
A major sell down in 1996 funded the land purchase and the initial building efforts. Several years later Fink announced plans to move his business to the chateau taking shape 300 kilometres North of Sydney.
This dream started to sour soon after ANZ agreed to refinance their loans in 2007.
The couple needed more money to fund the antiques business, and finish Les Marais, just as the financial crisis was about to hit.
The wall of worry about to hit the Finks well-heeled clients meant their antiques collection was no longer the rock-steady financial backup that it had been.
“It was common ground that Mr and Mrs Fink’s antiques business was adversely affected by the global financial crisis,” read the judgment.
“The market for 18th-century French antiques diminished significantly in 2008 and the strategy which they had previously used to raise capital was not as effective as it had been.”
This state of affairs must have come as a shock to Mr Fink.
As he once told the Herald: “collecting antiques is not only one of the most absorbing pastimes known to civilised man, but an internationally recognised investment for the wise and farseeing”.
To Mr Fink, his $12,800 Louis XV Gourdin chair was better investment currency than bricks and mortar.
“Antiques are an expensive business, you’re talking millions, but you can sell them around the world; your house you cannot. If you have a problem you don’t sacrifice the house, you sacrifice an antique. That’s their beauty.”
By 2008, the falling value of the incomplete mansion put further pressure on the loans, which were due for repayment.
This week, NSW Supreme Court Justice Christine Adamson found that the $3.4 million worth of loans from ANZ were valid and binding, and rejected the submission that ANZ took “unconscientious advantage of its superior bargaining position” as the Fink’s dream began to crumble.
The judgment stated that, given the “exceptional character and location” of Le Marais, there was always the risk that the cost of building the mansion would exceed its market value, but this was not an issue for the bank to police.
“To lend money on unremarkable commercial terms for the completion of a partially constructed dwelling, even if its style and location give it the character of a folly rather than an investment, is not unjust where borrowers have a demonstrated capacity to pay and there is, as here, no reason to believe that they are not capable of acting in their own interest,” said Justice Adamson.
“Were it otherwise, the provision of funds for depreciating or whimsical assets, such as luxury cars or boats, or overcapitalised real estate, would be in jeopardy. Financial institutions, such as the ANZ, are neither required, nor expected, to be paternalistic to customers such as Mr and Mrs Fink.”
The Finks soon paid the price for their “folly”.
A fire sale of their remaining antiques in October 2010, barely raised $1 million. The sale was expected to raise up to $3.5 million.
By November 2010 Mr Fink was already planning to sell the mansion with a price tag of up to $20 million.
In 2011 the Finks had defaulted on their loans to ANZ and the bank took control of the property last year.
Le Marais is currently for sale with no sales price being disclosed.