New York’s oddest trial yet stars Brunei’s scandalous Prince Jefri, his former advisers—and graphic life-size bronze statues featuring a nude prince and his fiancée. Lloyd Grove reports.
The most bizarre thing about Prince Jefri of Brunei’s lawsuit against his former business advisers is the statues.
That’s saying something, because this is a pretty bizarre lawsuit. It spans three continents, billions of dollars, and at least $100 million in legal fees spent so far to pursue what ultimately amounts to $6 million in disputed cash involving, among other properties, New York’s Palace Hotel.
Weirder still, all of the dozens of lawyers—toiling for four American law firms and two British ones representing both the plaintiffs and the defendants—are being paid by the prince’s older brother, the sultan of Brunei, who, along with the royal family’s Brunei Investment Agency, is on the prince’s side of the litigation. (This is, to put it mildly, an irony, because in multiple separate proceedings in the Bruneian and British courts, the sultan has spent an estimated $400 million in legal fees to sue his little brother, the former Bruneian finance minister, for allegedly defrauding the oil-rich sultanate of billions of dollars.) In the current case, after four years of motion-filing and deposition-taking, a full-dress jury trial is scheduled to start next Monday in New York State Supreme Court, Justice Ira Gammerman presiding.
His Royal Highness Prince Jefri Bolkiah—who, at 56, is famous the world over for profligate spending, keeping a harem of dozens of young women, owning a mega-yacht dubbed Tits, and purchasing hundreds of custom-made luxury cars, never driven, whose rubber tires tend to melt on the sun-baked Bruneian asphalt—is expected to testify. The 83-year-old Gammerman runs a tight ship. In a previous lawsuit, he once admonished a loquacious Woody Allen, “Stop talking!... I’m the director here.”
Gallery: Prince Jefri's Statues
But back to the statues—the best illustration of the strangely over-the-top nature of this case. There are a half dozen of them, made of bronze with a surface of skin-toned trompe-l’oeil, depicting the prince and his fiancée, Las Vegas siren Micha Raines, naked and life-size (and in certain particulars bigger than life-size) in various graphic sexual positions.
“I understand that there are some interesting statues,” Justice Gammerman mused Wednesday morning during one in an arduous series of pre-trial hearings on witnesses and evidence to be allowed at the proceeding.
“Some might consider them interesting,” replied defense lawyer Tony Gentile dryly. Gentile, of the law firm Godosky & Gentile, is the defense team’s local counsel, working with the blue-chip firm Baker Hostetler on behalf of British barrister Thomas Derbyshire, his barrister-wife Faith Zaman Derbyshire, and two of her brothers, all British citizens who performed various services for Prince Jefri from the summer of 2004 to November 2006, when he kicked them to the curb and sued for misappropriation of assets.
The prince “had so much money when I knew him, he could buy anything he wanted. But money wasn’t able to buy him taste.”
The defense is offering color photos of the statues as evidence in the trial, and Justice Gammerman has yet to rule on their admissibility. The photos are arguably prejudicial—some people might think the prince is batty—though Gammerman joked to me recently with a merry laugh: “I think the jury ought to have a look at that!”
“They actually make me blush,” said Baker Hostetler lawyer Mark A. Cymrot, who is representing Faith Zaman in the proceeding.
The pieces were fabricated, on private commission, by famed sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr. An artist more popular than critically acclaimed, he is best known for waxen-looking outdoor sculptures such as Waiting, a businessman sitting on a bench and reading the paper, and The Awakening, a monumental cast-aluminum work that depicts a bearded giant crawling out of the earth. It was installed temporarily at Washington’s Haines Point on the Potomac River.
Johnson’s publicly known oeuvre is definitely G-rated. But Prince Jefri’s statues—which were supposed to have been placed around the swimming pool of Sunninghill, a 28-acre Long Island, New York, estate that he bought for millions and then never slept over a single night—are decidedly Triple-X. Johnson was paid nearly $1 million for the commission.
Maybe it strains credulity, but the 80-year-old sculptor, the disowned scion of the Johnson & Johnson fortune, claimed through a spokesperson that he never knew that he was making the statues for a member of the Bruneian royal family.
“Mr. Johnson will not be available for an interview,” his spokesperson said in an email. “The sculptures were a commission specifically featuring positions of the ancient public domain Kama Sutra. Artists’ models were used and there was no reference to any collector, buyer, or other individual in the making of the pieces. The project was commissioned anonymously via a holding company and the sculptor was not told the identity of the buyer, only that the works would be installed in a private estate abroad.”
Perhaps, but I’m told the prince was initially annoyed when several of the male figures lacked a Jefri-style mustache, and fixes had to be ordered up for the sake of verisimilitude. To this unpracticed eye, at least from the photos, the statues are at once sexually explicit and wretchedly unsexy. The mystery, of course, is why would anyone have them made in the first place?
“I hesitate to call anyone a sex addict who hasn’t already called himself that—I’m not a mental-health professional,” said Jillian Lauren, whose memoir Some Girls chronicles her nearly two years as a member of Prince Jefri’s harem in the early 1990s. “But one of the hallmarks of sex addiction is pathological narcissism. I’m not at all surprised that he had erotic figures in bronze commissioned for him. I do remember that when we were together, he always kept the conversation about him.”
Lauren went on, “He had so much money when I knew him, he could buy anything he wanted. But money wasn’t able to buy him taste.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.