Martin Levick: The artful dodger?
Until April Martin Levick was CEO of investment firm Genesis Capital. Now, with investors claiming he's ripped them off for more than R712m, Levick's world is crashing down around him.
You’d do well to find an investment scandal quite as brazen as that allegedly concocted by former lawyer Martin Levick, 49, of Genesis Capital.
Just three alleged victims have emerged so far, but Levick is said to have ripped them off by about R712m. The scam may yet eclipse that of Barry Tannenbaum, who fleeced a number of high-profile South Africans of an estimated R12.5bn in 2009, before fleeing to Australia.
Until April Levick was CEO of Genesis, which was founded by his father, Selwyn. The firm still has a staff of 230 who work mainly as brokers selling financial products, mostly from Discovery. Its private equity arm, Genesis Capital Partners, has various investments, including a stake in health-food chain Kauai.
Levick’s most prominent alleged victim is Antony Ball, a former Rhodes scholar who co-founded private equity company Brait in 1990.
Ball, discussing his ordeal, tells the FM there are people you just shouldn’t believe. "I’ve known him [Levick] for 10 years. [He] has a way of getting very close to people, becoming quite intimate with them. He was very convincing when he turned on the charm. But it now seems there was this other, dark side to him."
In Ball’s case, he lent R42m to Levick as part of a scarcely believable plan that involved him providing finance for an original painting by British street artist Banksy.
"I was told it was a fantastic opportunity, but of course it wasn’t. It was a large sum of money for me, but it’s not everything I have," says Ball.
Quite how it worked is spelt out in Ball’s affidavit, which reads like the rough script of a mash-up of Catch Me If You Can and Billions. It is that affidavit which Ball and two other "investors" used to secure Levick’s sequestration in court last week.
The story goes that Levick approached Ball last September with the tale that he’d been asked to finance the purchase of Banksy’s Grannies for $3.5m. Levick would then onsell the artwork to Wendy Kirsh, the daughter of Swazi billionaire Natie Kirsh, for $10.5m.
In Ball’s telling, Levick said: "This is the only original ever made — [there are] many copies. Wendy Kirsh wants to buy it — she doesn’t believe we have got the one and only original." Kirsh, he added, "wants to put it in the Guggenheim Museum".
Ball worried that it might not be right to profit off Natie Kirsh’s daughter, who was Levick’s friend.
Don’t worry, said Levick: "I made a full disclosure of the supposed profit to be made … and [she] was comfortable with all this."
As Levick told it, the artwork was so precious even FirstRand founder Paul Harris was keen to buy it.
Harris, however, tells the FM Levick’s story is "absolute hogwash".
"I am an art collector, but I’ve never even heard of this Banksy. I’ve met Levick — he is an energetic guy, always with some deal he’s trying, but I’ve never done business with him," says Harris.
Still, the trick worked. In December, Ball paid $3.5m to Genesis’s UK arm. Levick then "instructed" Genesis UK to pay that $3.5m to someone he apparently owed money to for an earlier debt — Warren Friedland.
Levick boasted that he was good for the loan, as his personal wealth exceeded R1.3bn, including property in London, assets in Israel, R5.3m worth of cars, and accounts in Switzerland.
As time went on and Ball wanted to be repaid, Levick began dodging him.
Then, on February 28, Levick messaged Ball, saying: "For the sake of my wife and kids, I’m asking for your forgiveness as I’m really sorry. I misjudged the timing and sincerely apologise. I humbly ask you to … please drop the litigation."
But he stuck to the story that Wendy Kirsh wanted the painting. In a message sent in March, Levick said she was "en route to Poland to a Holocaust art exhibition and said she will pay when she is back in the US".
That same month, Ball’s lawyer received a message from Genesis UK of the sort every investor dreads. "It appears your client has been defrauded by Martin Levick," it said.
In his affidavit, Ball says: "Levick has stolen funds under false pretences, and used those funds to pay another creditor."
A classic Ponzi scheme, in other words.
It’s a pattern other "investors" have pointed out too.
Rael Segal, another Joburg businessman, says in an affidavit that his family lent $29m to Levick, whom the family had known for 13 years.
"My father [Frank] treated Levick like a son, and trusted him implicitly, so much so that my father entrusted substantial sums of money to [him] to invest for the benefit of the family," he says.
Segal believed the money was going to be invested with Genesis — but it apparently never was.
Christopher Brand, another businessman whom Levick apparently owes R240m, has a similar story. "I first met Levick over 20 years ago, when he was working as a financial and investment adviser. At the time, his father, Selwyn Levick, was the chair of Genesis Capital."
Now, Brand says, it’s clear Levick filched money, even allegedly falsifying payment confirmation e-mails.
Once, when Brand asked him why the numbers appeared with an extra zero on one such e-mail, Levick replied: "Don’t be crazy CB — I would never do that to anyone, especially you."
Says Brand: "To date, the known creditors of Levick total about R712m. I expect that other creditors will make themselves known."
The question is whether Genesis Capital, the company Levick headed until April, can survive.
Stan Melnick, who has taken over as CEO, says all these issues relate to Levick "in his personal capacity" and don’t affect the company.
"I’ve known Martin for 45 years, and the allegations come as a complete shock," he tells the FM.
Melnick says Genesis first became aware of what Levick was doing in February, when Genesis Capital UK helped him with a loan agreement.
"We conducted an internal investigation into this loan agreement, which ultimately led to a disciplinary procedure, [and] Levick’s resignation as a director and CEO of Genesis Capital," he says.
Still, Levick owns 6% in the private equity firm Genesis Capital Partners, while his family trust owns 15% of Genesis Capital. His brother Gary, who also holds shares in Genesis Capital, is still employed at the group.
Melnick says nobody at Genesis knew of Levick’s rogue behaviour.
"[He] made it clear to the lender that the purpose of the loan was to pursue a ‘personal opportunity’ while suggesting, quite falsely, that he had disclosed this fact to his co-directors and stakeholders in the Genesis Group … we were totally unaware."
He says no money belonging to Genesis investors has been stolen, nor have any clients or suppliers stopped doing business with Genesis.
Discovery is Genesis’s "primary product supplier", selling its medical aid and investment products.
Discovery CEO Adrian Gore says: "[Genesis] markets our products through three Genesis companies, but at the moment they account for 1% of our new business. We’re watching what happens closely."
Gore says he’s known Levick for years. "He was a charismatic guy, and a very likeable guy."
With a storm brewing, Levick has gone to ground. When contacted for comment, he told the FM he’d been unable to speak as he had been at a hospital; his mother, he said, "hasn’t been well".
He then deferred questions to his lawyer, Marco Martini. But on Tuesday, Martini confirmed he’d "withdrawn as Mr Levick’s attorney".
Until recently, Levick lived in a well-secured estate in Houghton. But when the FM went there this week, the guards said Levick "doesn’t live here any more" and now "lives with his brother".
Now that the house of cards has come crashing down, expect more jilted investors to emerge.