No Hollywood Ending?: The Charlie Chaplin Museum Struggles with Real Estate Woes and Shady Investors

No Hollywood Ending?: The Charlie Chaplin Museum Struggles with Real Estate Woes and Shady Investors
The placid beauty of Switzerland may seem an unlikely place for a museum devoted to Charlie Chaplin. The comic genius behind such films as "The Kid" and "Modern Times" is more easily imagined sitting on an urban stoop or trapped in a begrimed industrial landscape. But after falling victim to Joseph McCarthy's infamous blacklist, the iconic film star moved to Vevey, Switzerland, in 1952, purchasing Ban Manor, a large and scenic estate on Lake Geneva. Today, locals are working to turn his home into a museum, to be called "Chaplin's World: The Modern Times Museum." But financial difficulties have led to the purchase of the house and its surrounding land by two investors with shady connections, and supporters now wonder whether or not the museum — in planning for ten years — will ever see the light of day.

Since it was originally conceived, the estimated cost of the museum skyrocketed from 25 to 60 million Swiss francs ($27 to $65 million). When four towns in the area withdrew their financial support for the project, its architect, Philippe Meylan, brought in two foreign investors as the museum's "saviors," according to Le Monde. The Luxembourg billionaires, Gérard Lopez and Eric Lux, who head the investment company Genii Capital, purchased the estate in 2008, but their involvement has raised a number of concerns from the museum's supporters.

First of all, the price, as revealed by French-language Swiss television, was shockingly low: The pair purchased the 34-acre estate for 7.3 million Swiss francs ($7.9 million). The treasurer of the museum foundation, Laurence Dellenbach, was opposed to the sale and resigned her post, telling Le Monde that "Ban Manor has been sold off unconditionally and bought by private foreign funds whose sources can't be verified."

Investigations into Genii Capital do nothing to allay these suspicions. Le Monde found links between the company and Russian pilot Vitaly Petrov, a protégé of Ilias Traber, who has links to Vladimir Putin's circle. Traber was banned from Monaco for alleged connections to organized crime and is under investigation by the Swiss authorities. Also, he just happens to live on a luxurious estate near Ban Manor. A Swiss source with knowledge of the situation told Le Monde, "I'm afraid that all this will end up being nothing but a sweet real estate deal. Then the Chaplins will have lost everything." The sale of the estate had no safety clause that would allow the family to buy back the property for the same amount if the museum project fell through.

The Web site of the museum still indicates that it is slated to open in 2012, with "over 3,000 square meters [32,000 square feet] of space for discoveries, experiences, and emotions." Chaplin's collections are now housed elsewhere: his heirs have loaned a thousand photographs to Lausanne's Musée de l'Elysée for a ten-year period, with the possibility of renewal. Chaplin's written archives are in Montreux, Switzerland, and the collection of his film reels resides in Bologna, Italy. In an email, museum representative Yves Durand told ARTINFO France that all three archives "are specifically intended for use within the future Charlie Chaplin Museum."