The inside story of how The Telegraph caught Nirav Modi, t May 11, 2020 19:06:31 GMT 4
Post by anenro on May 11, 2020 19:06:31 GMT 4
The inside story of how The Telegraph caught Nirav Modi, the world’s most-wanted billionaire
On a cold day in March of last year, I found myself standing outside a public latrine in London’s Soho Square, waiting for India’s most-wanted man.
He was Nirav Modi, a diamond dealer who for the past 14 months had been on the run from India, accused of having defrauded the Punjab National Bank of £1.5 billion – the largest financial fraud in the country’s history.
An Interpol Red Notice had been issued for Modi’s arrest, and his whereabouts had been a subject of fevered speculation. It was rumoured that he was in London, or New York, or possibly Antwerp – the diamond-dealing centre of Europe, where he had business and family connections. But over the course of an investigation lasting several weeks, The Telegraph had done what the British police and Indian authorities had apparently failed to do: established Modi’s location, tracing him to an address in the luxury Centre Point apartment block in central London, and to the Georgian house in Soho Square where he was engaged in a new diamond business.
We had watched and surreptitiously photographed Modi – or at least the man we thought was Modi – over several days. He looked heavier than the figure seen in photographs from the previous few years, posing with celebrities at the opening of one or other of his chain of jewellery shops, and shaking hands with the Prince of Wales at a charity function in New Delhi. In those photographs Modi was clean-shaven. This man had a distinctive handlebar moustache.
From my vantage point I could see the door of the premises where Modi had his office. Standing a short distance away, half hidden behind the railings of the square, was The Telegraph’s chief reporter, Robert Menthingy, looking up at the first floor of the building. He gestured to me. He could see the man we believed to be Modi at the window, slipping on his jacket – apparently readying to leave.
With our videographer, Emma Mills, I crossed the road and waited by the door. Robert raised a hand. The door opened and a man stepped on to the pavement. As he walked past I fell into step immediately behind him. ‘Mr Modi…’ I said. He turned and stopped in his tracks, a startled look on his face. We had got our man.
Nirav Modi, who – through his lawyers – has always protested his innocence of all charges against him, is presently in Wandsworth prison, where he has been kept on remand for the past 13 months, facing extradition proceedings. His numerous applications for bail have been turned down. A man who in 2017 was estimated by Forbes to have a personal fortune of £1.3 billion (ranking him at number 85 on the magazine’s India’s Richest list) now presents a sorry figure, desperate to avoid being returned to India, and the prospect of a trial that could potentially see him facing life imprisonment.
It is an extraordinary fall for a man who in the space of just 10 years rose from being an unknown diamond wholesaler in Mumbai to owning a chain of retail outlets in prime locations throughout the world, and seeing his jewellery modelled by stars on the red carpet at the Academy Awards.
Modi, who is 49, is Jain, a religious community historically associated with banking and diamonds. Born into a family of jewellers, he grew up in Antwerp, learning the trade from his father, Deepak. Among his family, he once recalled, talking about diamonds was ‘our way of conversation’.
He went on to study at the Wharton business school of the University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out after little more than a year, moving to India to work in the wholesale diamond business run by his uncle Mehul Choksi.
Ninety per cent of diamonds mined across the world are cut and polished in India. In 1999, Modi established his own trading company, Firestar Diamond, and in 2008 he moved into jewellery design. The story would subsequently be recycled through many media interviews, of how a friend had ‘begged’ him to create a pair of earrings for her, and he obliged with a pair made of large white solitaires, encircled by a ring of diamonds, firing up a hitherto dormant passion for jewellery design. In the same year, the diamond market crashed, and suddenly rare pink, blue and white flawless diamonds above 10ct were readily available at reduced prices. This was Modi’s chance, and in 2010 he launched the Nirav Modi brand.
His designs were cleverly tailored to have international appeal, using the traditional rose cut and motifs of Indian jewellery, but without the usual gold or enamel settings, lending his pieces a lighter, sparer look – ‘as beautiful on the back as on the front’, as one jewellery expert puts it. He admitted that he himself was unable to draw – he would simply describe what he wanted to a team of designers.
In 2014, Modi opened his first store in New Delhi; more followed in short order – in Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Macau and Beijing. His ambitions were limitless. One associate spoke of how he suffered ‘palpitations’ thinking of Modi’s ultimate aim: to open 100 stores worldwide, ‘when just opening five or 10 was an uphill journey’.
Modi liked to present himself as an enigma. In an interview with Fortune India magazine in 2015, he boasted of his outsider status in the Indian jewellery world: ‘Ask any jeweller in Mumbai if he has met me in the last decade,’ he said, ‘and the answer you’ll get is “no”.’
In person, he cut an anonymous figure – a polite, softly spoken man, short in stature and with prematurely receding hair, who claimed to lead a quiet life with his American-born wife, Ami, and their three children, in an apartment in an exclusive enclave of Mumbai. He enjoyed reading classical poetry, and slept with a copy of the Hindu scripture the Bhagavadgita at his bedside.
But this picture of a modest, contemplative family man belied the couple’s extravagant tastes. In the months following his departure from India, and as the investigation into his alleged fraud unfolded, the Indian Enforcement Directorate seized assets that would later be put up for public auction. A sale in March 2020 included a Rolls-Royce Ghost (‘ideal’, according to the auction catalogue, ‘for long-distance travel’); a Porsche Panamera S; luxury watches; Hermès Birkin and Kelly handbags; and a staggering collection of artworks by celebrated Indian painters.
Ami had become a fixture among Mumbai’s so-called ‘frou frou’ set of hyper-wealthy socialites and Bollywood stars. And their place in the highest echelons of Indian society was cemented when Modi’s brother Neeshal married Isheta Salgaocar, the niece of India’s wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries.
In 2015 Modi launched his assault on the Western market, opening his first American store on Madison Avenue, within a couple of blocks of established jewellers such as Graff, De Beers and Tiffany & Co. He displayed a shrewd understanding of how to promote himself and play the luxury market at its own game by courting celebrities and the media. The Madison Avenue opening was a glitzy affair, attended by the actor Naomi Watts and Donald Trump Jr. The following year, Kate Winslet appeared on the red carpet at the Oscars draped in Modi jewellery, encrusted with almost 100 carats of diamonds. She declared that his ‘feminine, modern designs are among my very favourite’.
In October 2016, he opened a store on Old Bond Street in London, the next step in a plan to supply ‘the missing piece’ in the £230 billion-plus global jewellery market: an Asian brand with international appeal. As members of the press and invited guests moved among the display cases, champagne glasses in hand, admiring the collections of diamond necklaces, bracelets and earrings with price tags of up to £300,000, Modi posed with the Bollywood star Lisa Haydon and the new ‘face’ of the brand, the supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Among the guests, the talk was of his astonishing ascent, apparently out of the blue, in the traditionally conservative and tight-knit world of luxury jewellery, and the huge sums being lavished on advertising and promotion.
‘People were asking, “Where’s the money coming from?”’ one guest remembers.
They would shortly find out.
On 17 January 2018, Modi left India suddenly. His wife and children had left shortly before him, bound for New York, telling friends there was an illness in the family.
Twelve days after his departure, the Punjab National Bank (PNB) filed a police complaint against Modi, his uncle Mehul Choksi and others, accusing them of fraud costing the bank 2.81 billion rupees (about £31 million, a figure that would later rise to £1.5 billion). His passport was frozen, and Interpol issued a Red Notice against him, listing a string of charges including criminal conspiracy and money laundering. (A Red Notice is a request to ‘locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition’.)
It was alleged that Modi, with the connivance of senior bank officials, had acquired fraudulent letters of undertaking on behalf of a number of shell companies from the PNB branch in Mumbai, in order to obtain overseas credit from other Indian lenders – ultimately leading to an ‘evergreening’ of loans, which ballooned to an enormous sum.