CENTURIES after becoming the favourite white stone of Roman emperors and sculptors down the ages – including Michelangelo and later Antonio Canova – the marble from Tuscany’s fabled Carrara quarries has become an investment target for the Saudi family of Osama Bin Laden.
This week, the Binladin construction group became the largest shareholder in an Italian firm quarrying Carrara’s precious marble, used by Michelangelo to sculpt his David and by Canova for his Three Graces.
The group is already a big fan of the marble, buying €40 million worth last year, about 20 per cent of the quarries’ output, said Antonio Menchini, a lawyer who represented the group during the purchase.
Osama Bin Laden was one of 53 children of Mohammed Bin Laden, the founder of the Saudi Binladin Group – one of Saudi Arabia’s largest companies.
In 1994 the family disowned Osama, seven years before he organised the 9/11 attacks in the US. In 2011 he was killed by US special forces in Pakistan. Today the group’s chairman is Bakr Bin Laden, a half-brother of Osama.
A €45m (£36m) deal to invest in Tuscan marble was sealed this week when a subsidiary of the Bin Laden empire took a 50 per cent stake in Marmi Carrara, buying out four local families.
Marmi Carrara in turn holds a 50 per cent of four quarrying firms which hold the right to quarry one third of the marble, about 400,000 tonnes annually.
Carrara marble was used by the Romans to build the Pantheon and Trajan’s Column. It was used at the turn of the 19th century by Canova to sculpt his Three Graces, a version of which is now owned jointly by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the statue of Robert Burns in Dumfries, carved in Carrara by Italian sculptors and unveiled in 1882.
Today the marble is more prized than ever among wealthy customers in emerging economies such as China and India, while rapper Kanye West reportedly ordered a table built from the marble with his guests’ names inlaid in gold for his Florence wedding this year.
Giulio Andreani, a lawyer for the Tuscan vendors, said prices of the marble had risen by 30 per cent in five years, reaching €3,000 a tonne.
The new deal, struck this week, valued the four quarrying firms at €180m, up from just €27m in 1999, said Mr Andreani.
The deal adds to the 26 marble quarries the Bin Laden family already controls worldwide.
But Mr Andreani shrugged off concerns that a marble associated with religious art would now be controlled by a Muslim group.
“This marble must be used for beautiful things, it doesn’t matter if they are Catholic or Muslim,” he said.
“Politicians were worried about losing control of the marble, but the producers already know the group and everyone is fine now,” he added.
“It is important to have people who invest and who know how to run the business. Race and religion don’t count.”
Mr Menchini said the Bin ladin Group had plans to start working the marble in Carrara instead of just quarrying it. “They may have been seen at the start as just taking away the marble, but the group has a real desire to increase work here,” he said. “There have been no obstacles because the group is linked to the Bin Laden family, but is nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden.”