Interview: Financier Rayo Withanage and his vision for Picasso’s home in Mougins

Rayo Withanage Park Lane Investor at Picasso's Estate in the South of France

Rayo Withanage is an “influential financier” and advisor to some of the wealthiest royal families in the world. He is also owner of Picasso’s final home in Mougins, Mas Notre Dame de Vie, and he has bold plans to turn this famous sprawling estate into a global creative powerhouse: a private estate that will re-energise the French Riviera as a source of inspiration and impact once again.

Despite a successful career in finance, Rayo Withanage disappeared from the media spotlight after the filing of his divorce in 2018. Only a select few know what happened to him since, until now.

Withanage rose to prominence as an entrepreneur and financier from New Zealand, when he founded the BMB Group and turned it into an ultra-high-net-worth fund, with backing from the investment arms of family offices in Asia and the Middle East.

Withanage is also a director of Scepter, a single-family office that has over $14 billion to back large transactions, with offices in New York, London and Brunei.

You might not guess it from his humble demeanour, but Withanage has been described by Euromoney as “one of the most influential financiers in the Middle East and Asia”.

“But that’s my past,” Rayo tells me as we meet for lunch at the new Café de Paris one sunny winter’s day. “Let’s talk about the future.”

Château de Vie in 2024
Château de Vie today

Buying the most successful art production house in history

In 2017, Rayo Withanage purchased Pablo Picasso’s final estate in Mougins. The sale made headlines, not least because he bought it for well under the €170 million price tag being flouted by its art dealer-owner, although that did include precious works of art. In the end, Withanage still got a bargain, sans art, paying just over €20 million as the sole bidder for an estate that was valued at €75 million a year later.

More than €4 billion worth of art had been created in Picasso’s château at Notre Dame de Vie, making it one of the most successful art production houses in the world.

Although completely renovated, the home retained traces of Pablo Picasso not only in legacy, but in splashes of paint, original furniture and a palpable energy that resonates from every corner of this 800sqm home.

Park Lane's first venture Château de Vie
The final home of Pablo Picasso has long been a drawcard for the rich and famous

The chateau’s rich Riviera history

In 1961, Pablo Picasso left his home in Cannes and purchased Mas Notre Dame de Vie from the Anglo-Irish Guinness brewing family as a wedding gift for his new wife Jacqueline Roque. It is where Winston Churchill spent time painting in the gardens, and where Picasso himself had enjoyed vacationing. At the age of 80, this vast estate became Picasso’s final home, and he lived there until his death at the age of 91.

It is but one, albeit very important, aspect of an estate that, throughout the 20th century and the time of Benjamin and Bridget Guinness, welcomed illustrious celebrities and some of the most important creative figures in history including Henri Matisse, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin and the Rolling Stones.

Pablo Picasso at Mas Notre Dame de Vie
Pablo Picasso at Mas Notre Dame de Vie

During his time at the estate, Pablo Picasso was incredibly productive, drawing inspiration from the large villa, expansive Mediterranean gardens and magnificent view of the Bay of Cannes and the Estérel mountain range. He produced some of his most important works from his “later period” here, not only paintings but also sculpture, ceramics and photography, with Jacqueline as his main muse. In fact, Picasso created more portraits of his second wife than any other woman in his life at the Mougins estate.

After the Cubist master’s death in 1973, Jacqueline lived in the villa until 1986, when she committed suicide there. Her daughter Catherine Hutin-Blay, from a previous marriage, inherited the estate and it stayed abandoned for more than two decades before it was sold to a Belgian entrepreneur in 2007. The art lover spent over €17 million to completely restore the chateau and renamed it ‘Cavern of the Minotaur’, in honour of Picasso’s obsession with the mythical beast.

Picasso's gardens with a view of the Bay of Cannes.
The sprawling gardens of the three-hectare property over look the Bay of Cannes and the Estérel.

A new era for ‘Château de Vie’

As we meet again at the sprawling property on another sunny yet crisp day, it is exciting to see the immense vision that Withanage has for this incredible three-hectare estate, which has been renamed Château de Vie.

He tells me he is deploying over €100 million for the development of new business lines at the estate to be announced in the first quarter of 2024.

“There are two types of cultural preservation: you can create a museum or you can honour something by continuing to use it,” Withanage tells me. “The plans that we have are about honouring Picasso’s presence and legacy here, so the estate will remain profoundly creative and innovative.”

The entire property has been completely renovated, ready for its new chapter

No plans to turn it into a hotel

Withanage is keen to stress that Picasso’s house will remain private. “We’ve received many suggestions to build a members’ club or a hotel in the main house, but we refused. I think it would be an abomination to turn Picasso’s living room into a hotel lobby,” he says. “Today, we are working with a world leader in branding and the arts to come up with the best plans for the future of Château de Vie. Whatever we do, it will be done to make real impact.”

While he promises to reveal more details soon, one thing is clear: Withanage is excited to be writing a new chapter in the legendary story of Château de Vie. “We see ourselves as having a unique role, of someone who honours the past while enabling the future.”

Join the Monaco Life community – the largest English media in the Principality.   

Sign up for the Monaco Life newsletter, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Tik Tok. 

Photos provided