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Japanese Heiress Jailed in French Chateau-Stripping Scandal

February 17, 1996

PARIS (AP) _ For a Frenchwoman struggling to keep her family’s 17th century castle intact, a Japanese heiress’ offer to buy and restore it seemed almost too good to be true.

It was.

Nine years after the Chateau de Millemont was sold for $7 million, the roof is leaking, weeds have overtaken the once-stately gardens _ and Niko Nakahara is in jail, charged with forgery and breach of trust.

Authorities say Nakahara, 50, also is to blame for stripping at least 10 other chateaus, most classified as historical monuments by the French government, and leaving them in ruins.

The affair has scandalized France, which blames Nakahara for selling off bits of its heritage like so many spare parts of a worn-out luxury car.

``We were completely swayed by her promises to renovate the chateau and open it to the public,″ said Colette de Baudus. ``We were full of illusions and dreams. Now we have broken hearts.″

It could have been worse. De Baudus’ chateau in Millemont, about 30 miles southwest of Paris, fared better than most because she negotiated the right to live on the premises until her death.

``I’m sure that’s what prevented Nakahara from bringing in workers to tear out the marble chimneys, the wooden moldings and wainscotting, the way she did elsewhere,″ said de Baudus, now 74 and the town’s mayor.

An authentic Louis XV boudoir set was shipped off to auction, but the state bought it for its national collections.

According to authorities, Nakahara and her husband, Jean-Claude Perez-Vanneste, spent $20 million snapping up properties around France.

Purchases were made on behalf of Nippon Sangyoo Kabushiki Kaisha, a company headed by Nakahara’s father, Hideki Yokoi, who is also part-owner of New York’s Empire State Building. He is currently in prison in Japan on charges of first-degree murder and tax evasion.

It was later discovered that Nippon Sangyoo had sold the chateaus to a French company headed by Nakahara’s husband, who is wanted for questioning in France but has fled the country, a Culture Ministry spokeswoman said.

Nakahara, who doesn’t speak French, has been in the women’s prison in Versailles since January and may remain behind bars until June. No date has been set for her trial.

Bernard Cahen, Nakahara’s lawyer, said charges of forgery and breach of trust won’t stand up in court and argued that his client had every right to sell what was legally hers.

According to French law, classified historical monuments are allowed to change hands if the new owner ensures they will be maintained. Furnishings and decorative objects may be sold, but all sales must be reported to the Culture Ministry, which decides which items can leave the country.

Cahen said Nakahara had planned to convert several of the chateaus into luxury hotels, but ran out of money when her father was arrested. ``She had to find money to pay her bills,″ he said in a telephone interview.

Stunned by the scandal, chateau owners are lobbying for stricter laws to protect the national heritage. The Culture Ministry said the government might have to be more aggressive about buying what comes on the market.

But it’s already too late for the castles bought by Mrs. Nakahara.

The Chateau de Louveciennes in suburban Paris, where Madame du Barry entertained her royal lover, King Louis XV, looks as though it has been hit by vandals.

Woodwork and gilded mirrors have been ripped from walls. Marble fireplaces have been torn out of bedrooms. Statues have disappeared from the formal gardens. Rain pours through gaping holes in the roof.

``If they had been able to uproot the trees or remove the slate on the roof, they would have,″ Renee Rouzet, deputy mayor of Rosny-sur-Seine, told the Paris daily Le Figaro.

Cahen said Louveciennes was ``a mess″ before Nakahara even bought it.

``Squatters had been living there illegally for a long time and thieves had already taken what they wanted, which is why she was able to get it for peanuts,″ he said.

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