From dotcom fortune to a £12m repossession order

He made a pile during the internet boom, lost it when the bubble burst, but then rebuilt his finances. Now Robert Bonnier seems to be in trouble again – forced to give up a west London mansion in what may be the biggest repossession in British history. By Jerome Taylor
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The Independent Online

At the tender age of 14 Robert Bonnier was already showing an acute flair for accumulating wealth. Injured during a football game near his home town of Tilburg, in the Netherlands, he was taken to the nearest hospital to have his fingers reset. The doctors made a hash of it and he was paid £600 compensation. He invested it in shares.

He has been investing ever since, and has earned a reputation as a financial Lazarus who was somehow able to resurrect himself from the ashes of the dotcom collapse and a record-breaking fine for misleading the stock market.

But now it appears the 38-year-old financier has finally met his match by becoming the latest and most high-profile victim of the credit crunch. A luxury London mansion he bought for almost £12m last year with borrowed cash has been seized by the banks in what is thought to be Britain's biggest-ever house repossession.

Until now victims of the growing number of property seizures in Britain have generally been ordinary folk unable to pay their mortgages, thanks to the worsening economic climate and spiralling living costs. London's super-prime market, a world where savvy property speculators can make millions by selling exclusive properties on to loaded oligarchs and oil sheikhs, was largely thought to be immune to the property crash.

But the seizure of Mr Bonnier's mansion, 1 Holland Park, may be the first of many luxury properties to end up back in the hands of lenders as the shockwaves of last week's economic fallout reverberate through the City. The oligarchs and oil sheikhs will no doubt weather the financial storms but for property speculators money is increasingly hard to come by. As one Mayfair-based estate agent put it: "There are five potential repossessions in Mayfair this year, which is unheard of."

For Mr Bonnier, a former investment banker who made and lost millions during the dotcom bubble, the repossession is yet another colourful chapter in a roller-coaster career that has seen him close to ruin on more than one occasion. He came to London in 1992, then aged 21, to work for the Swiss Banking Corporation, where he was part of a group of hotshots who were tasked with harnessing the growing financial potential of the internet.

It was during this period that he and a number of fellow up-and-coming financiers decided to reinvent dramatically the humdrum Yellow Pages and create an online directories business. The result was Scoot, one of Britain's most successful, and subsequently disastrous, dotcom companies, which imploded spectacularly when the bubble burst in late 2000.

As investor interest in internet stock reached fever pitch, Scoot's value soared to £2.5bn, peaking at 315p a share, while Mr Bonnier – the company's chief executive – was thought to be worth about £150m. He became a pin- up of the dotcom era, just one of a number of savvy young entrepreneurs who tapped into the potential of technology at a time when the older generation of financiers was struggling to understand the difference between a laptop and a lap dance.

In one incident that was said to illustrate just how rich the dotcommers had become, Mr Bonnier was said to have sent his private jet to collect his lawyer who was on a family holiday in Grenoble. The lawyer attended a brief meeting and was then promptly returned by jet the same evening.

When the dotcom bubble burst, Scoot's shares plummeted to 3.5p and many speculated whether the industry's golden boys would ever recover. Mr Bonnier bounced back by making a fortune trading on the London stock market – usually through contracts for difference (CFDs), a complicated method of trading in shares. But the spectre of controversy continued to haunt the Dutch financier. In 2004, he was fined a then record £290,000 by the Financial Services Authority for misleading statements he made over his intention to bid for Regus, an office rentals group. He was also involved in a protracted legal battle with Global Trader Europe, a derivatives brokerage, which launched a High Court attempt last year to recover an alleged £6.2m debt from Mr Bonnier and two Jersey-based companies, but went into administration a few weeks later. Now he seems to have come unstuck with property speculation as well. No 1 Holland Park, formerly owned by the American film producer Charles Schneer, was bought by a Jersey-registered company, owned by Mr Bonnier, last year for £11,678,000, £3m more than the asking price. About £7m of that money is believed to have been borrowed from the banks which have since seized the property. Mr Bonnier had planned to extend the basement – adding a swimming pool, a wine cellar and a cinema – before returning it to the market for £15m. The six-bedroom house is now back on the market, with planning permission approval for the extension, for £10m.

The question is, with the current crisis in the City, will anyone be willing to buy it? Phillip Shaw, the chief economist at Investec, a specialist banking group, believes that the luxury house market has generally remained resistant to the economic woes but says it may not last for ever. "Our observations before the summer were that the super-prime market had remained very buoyant," he said. "That's because the people who were buying were relatively small in number but had lots of wealth. I'd be hesitant to say the situation has changed overnight but there is less confidence. There are stories of high-profile repossessions and a lot of restructuring in the City. We'll just have to wait and see."

When big names go bust

Hampton Court: Archbishop of York Thomas Wolsey went on something of a spending spree when he took over the lease for Hampton Court in 1514 and turned it into one of the most opulent palaces in the country. It all came tumbling down in 1529 when Henry VIII, enraged by the Archbishop's inability to secure an annulment to his marriage, took possession of the palace and slung his closest adviser out.

Ed McMahon: With a television career spanning four decades, most famously as Johnny Carson's sidekick for 30 years on The Tonight Show, you might have thought 85-year-old McMahon's mortgage on his Beverly Hills mansion was all paid off. Not so. In June it was announced he was $644,000 (£350,000) behind on payments and the loan sharks were circling. In the end a charitable Donald Trump saved the day, bought the property and leased it to McMahon.

Neverland Ranch: Pop star Michael Jackson narrowly avoided losing his famous home-cum-theme park earlier this year when a last-minute deal was struck to buy him out of a multi-million dollar tax debt. In February, Jackson was told that unless he could come up with $24,525,906.61 (£13.5m) by 19 March a public auction would be held in front of a local courthouse. As the deadline approached, a deal was hammered out with an investment firm that meant Jackson got to keep his dream home.

Verona Arena: A quarter of Italy's opera houses are on the verge of bankruptcy with the Roman-built amphitheatre in Verona just the latest to announce that it is lurching towards repossession. The Mayor of the ancient northern Italian city is trying to stop an attempt by the government to take over the famous venue.

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