Wednesday 22 May 2019

Obituary: Jean-Pierre Van Rossem

Deeply eccentric would-be stock market guru, politician, F1 team owner and 'crook and gangster'

COLOURFUL: Van Rossem
COLOURFUL: Van Rossem

Jean-Pierre Van Rossem, who has died aged 73, was a self-styled financial wizard and Marxist turned anarchist, one-time millionaire owner of a Formula One racing team, convicted fraudster, former heroin addict, novelist - and possibly the most colourful figure in the history of Belgian politics.

As one of his country's few celebrities, Van Rossem appeared to be on a one-man crusade to dispel the stereotypical image of Belgians as stolid and dull. Among other things he published a guide to more than 1,000 of the country's brothels, complete with Michelin-guide style symbols (condoms signifying good hygiene, beds representing comfort, wallets representing good value for money and smiley faces reflecting an atmosphere conducive to good performance).

He chronicled his own sexual preferences in cartoon strips, sold to fund his political ambitions, showing him being stretched by nuns on a rack and being saved by blonde maidens in castles.

Most bizarre of all, he bought Europe's first refrigerated coffin to house the body of his second wife, who reportedly committed suicide in 1989 when he met another woman, "so I can see her again before I die", but was prevented from installing it in the graveyard by the local community, who thought the noise of the motor excessive.

Van Rossem was in jail on fraud charges when he was elected to Belgium's parliament in November 1991 for his own libertarian protest party, the Radical Transformers and Social Fighters for a More Honest Society ('Rossem' in Flemish).

Under the slogans, "No nonsense, vote libertine" and "No nagging everybody rich", he demanded the privatisation of Belgium's social security system, direct elections for police officers and the abolition of the monarchy and marriage.

Though widely dismissed as a joke, the party got more than 200,000 votes - 3.2pc - and won three seats in the federal parliament. Van Rossem, who had been sentenced to five years in jail, took his seat in 1992 and remained at liberty until 1995 thanks to parliamentary immunity. He continued to court notoriety by publishing his brothel guide and by interrupting the oath-taking ceremony of King Albert II in August 1993 with a shout of "Long live the Republic of Europe".

Once his immunity expired he spent more time in jail and wrote an autobiography, which became a bestseller. This year, however, saw him back in court on charges of forgery, money laundering, tax evasion and fraud.

Found guilty in November, he was sentenced to two years in jail. "I was a crook and a gangster," Van Rossem told an interviewer in 1993. "I don't believe in paying taxes. If 200,000 people are voting for such a person who was in jail it is because they feel that the other candidates are even more corrupt. The people here must be hopeless to vote for a nutcase like me."

Jean-Pierre Van Rossem was born on May 29, 1945 in Bruges into a petit-bourgeois, conservative, royalist Roman Catholic family.

In later life he would describe his father as having "a mouth full of vinegar and slime". Not surprisingly, perhaps, they did not get on.

Van Rossem became a Marxist as an economics student at the University of Ghent, where he was said to have made money on the side writing people's dissertations for them.

In the early 1970s he went to America, where he started a small company, but soon went bankrupt financing a drug habit and was sentenced to four years in jail for fraud.

However, he claimed later: "I escaped and headed to Germany to join the Red guerrillas. On the way, I stopped in Ghent and went into a bookshop to steal a new volume of Karl Marx. A very nice lady stopped me, she was the wife of an industrialist. So I decided to punish capitalism by taking his wife. I felt pure hate for them both when she rang her husband to say she was leaving him but then I fell in love."

To finance his new wife's shopping habit, as he put it, Van Rossem set up in business as a stock-market guru having, he said, found a formula for predicting and beating market trends and yielding enormous returns. He set up an investment company, Moneytron, the name of a "supercomputer" able to predict economic fluctuations, a machine nobody else ever got to see as it was supposedly kept behind a locked door in Van Rossem's office.

For a time the trick appeared to work. It was rumoured that Moneytron clients included royalty and heads of states. In 1989 Van Rossem was reported by the Financial Times to have managed $7bn (€6.1bn) from international investors.

Van Rossem amassed a personal fortune variously estimated at between $500m (€437m) and $860m (€752m). At his most successful he claimed to own a $4m (€3.5m) yacht, two Falcon 900 aircraft and no fewer than 108 Ferraris. He also took over the Onyx racing team and brought it to F1 in 1989, arriving at the opening race in Brazil with an entourage of scantily clad young women who became known during the season as the 'Moneytron girls'. He became a regular guest on television chat shows.

Things began to fall apart in 1990 after Van Rossem wrote a cheque for more than $50m (€44m)to a French entrepreneur, which bounced. As his business empire unravelled, he claimed that he had lost money in the 1989 market crash, though critics argued that Moneytron had been nothing more than a smoke-and-mirror Ponzi scheme.

Later on, Van Rossem blamed the investors themselves: "At one point I offered a 50pc profit in three months and people asked for more. If you show a million returns to millionaires, they no longer ask questions. My clients blindly believed me."

Van Rossem, who died on December 14, married three times and had a son.

© Telegraph

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