Controversial businessman whose first love was art

James Stafford: March 14th, 1945 – August 12th, 2015

James Stafford:  took over his family’s coal-importing business, transforming it into a major player in the coal market. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

James Stafford: took over his family’s coal-importing business, transforming it into a major player in the coal market. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

The businessman and art collector James Stafford, who has died aged 70, was a leading figure in the Irish business world in the 1970s and 1980s, who later figured in the Flood tribunal.

As an old-fashioned aesthete and something of a dandy, he cut an unusual figure in the drab world of Irish business circles of the time, with bespoke suits from London tailor Huntsman, handmade shoes from John Lobb of St James’s Street, shirts from Charvet of Paris and a collection of more than 300 Hermès silk ties which he later gave to his sister-in-law so she could make a patchwork quilt from them.

He came to international attention through a major deal in oil exploration shares in Atlantic Resources, a company he founded with Sir Anthony O’Reilly. It made him one of Ireland’s first multimillionaires, though he relished claiming to have made and lost more fortunes than any man in Ireland.

Life-saving

George V

James Stafford was born into an old Co Wexford family and educated at St Gerard’s in Bray, Co Wicklow and at the Benedictine Downside School in Somerset.

His father, also James Stafford, was a leading Irish businessman. His mother, Colleen Stafford, was one of the first women journalists on the Irish Press and was an adviser to former taoiseach Charles J Haughey in the early days of his political career.

The family lived in an impressive Georgian mansion called Cromwell’s Fort which James inherited, spending a fortune developing the garden before deciding to sell the house and move to full-time hotel living.

He began his business career as an apprentice accountant but things soon changed when he took over his family’s coal-importing business, transforming it into a major player in the coal market. At one time he had one of the largest property portfolios in Ireland which included the Gresham Hotel and a swathe of Georgian Dublin.

Love of art

When artist Derek Hill saw the painting he told him he felt certain it was the original, because the artist had painted the syphilitic eye of the sitter.

When he returned to Dublin after living as a tax exile in Monte Carlo, he lived for many years in the Conrad Hotel where he was devoted to the staff and they to him, despite his tendency to return as many as six breakfast omelettes to the kitchen in one morning.

It was after his return to Dublin and arising from his directorship of Century Radio that he found himself at the centre of the Flood tribunal.

He repeatedly denied any knowledge of or involvement in a payment to former communications minister Ray Burke and said he knew nothing of the £35,000 cash payment to Burke until two years after the event.

He was found, however, to have obstructed the tribunal for failing to give a truthful account of the payment to Burke.

He suffered his final debilitating illness with fortitude. At his own request, his funeral was private and no notice of his death was published until a few weeks later.

He is survived by his brothers Peter, Patrick and David.