By Gareth Jones
BERLIN (Reuters) - The Uffizi Gallery in Florence provided a fittingly lavish backdrop for the arrest on fraud charges of Florian Homm, a flamboyant German financier who has spent more than five years in hiding.
U.S. authorities accuse the former hedge fund manager of orchestrating a market manipulation scheme to artificially improve the performance of his funds, a fraud that led to at least $200 million in losses to investors.
Homm, now 53, disappeared in 2007 from his luxury villa on the Mediterranean island of Majorca after, according to U.S. authorities, dumping tens of millions of dollars' worth of his own shares in his company Absolute Capital Management Holdings Ltd and causing huge losses to investors.
The story of his arrest by Italian police on Friday, like so much else in Homm's life, reads like a thriller. Acting on a tipoff from the FBI, the police followed his ex-wife and son to their rendezvous with the elusive Homm at the Uffizi.
There, as the three were admiring classical Greek sculptures, police said they arrested him "very discreetly".
"Even the museum guards didn't notice anything," said the director of the Uffizi, Antonio Natali.
Everything about the cigar-chomping Homm, who stands over two meters (6 feet 7 inches) tall and is nicknamed the "steamroller", seems larger than life.
In his native Germany, Homm is viewed by some as a symbol of the hubristic greed that helped trigger the global financial crisis of 2008-09.
But he is also remembered for saving one of the country's most revered soccer teams, Borussia Dortmund, from bankruptcy and has more recently established a charity, Maximum Impact Medicine, that aims to save lives by providing cheap vaccines.
"Homm was definitely what you would call a colorful figure," said Klaus Nieding, a lawyer and head of the German shareholders' association DSW which has had dealings with Homm.
"Back in 2005-2007, he clearly fancied himself in the role of a tycoon who carried out a whole range of diverse investments. But, to put it mildly, there are numerous investors who feel their interests haven't been served in the best possible way," Nieding told Reuters.
In a recent autobiography that bears the English title "The Rogue Financier: Adventures of an Estranged Capitalist", Homm tells of how he boarded his private plane in 2007 with cash stuffed into his underwear and cigar case and fled to Colombia.
In German his book is entitled "Kopf Geld Jagd" (Headhunt for Money), a reference to a $1.5 million reward offered by a German private detective last year for information on his whereabouts. Homm said he saw this as an effective contract on his life.
"I had a long list of enemies," he said.
Homm, who went to the United States as a young man to play basketball and ended up graduating from Harvard Business School, said he wanted to make amends for his past misdeeds by devoting himself to good causes.
"I used to be filthy rich, I had everything such a person has - villas, planes, a private zoo, yachts, everything. But I didn't know what to do with it," he said in a rare interview published last November in the now-defunct Financial Times Deutschland newspaper.
His book, dedicated to the two children he said he regretted having neglected as a father, was intended to discourage young people from giving in to "blind greed" as he had done, he said.
In the interview, Homm compared himself to Saint Paul in the Bible who sees the light and repents of his former life.
The paper described him as fit and tanned and said he was a keen skier and fly-fisherman, but added that the fugitive life - he said he had spent 18 months moving around the world and staying in cheap hotels - had left him nervous and suspicious.
The reporter who conducted the FTD interview wrote of having to follow elaborate instructions - ending in a metal detector scan - before finally interviewing him in a Paris hotel. Homm allowed no photographs or tape recordings.
The criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles alleges that Homm directed hedge funds to buy billions of shares of U.S.-based penny stocks and trade them among themselves to inflate their prices and the funds' asset values while generating additional fees for him and his company.
There has been no indication from Homm as to how he will plead.
Italy is now expected to extradite him to the United States.
(Additional reporting by Andreas Cremer in Berlin and Gavin Jones in Rome; Editing by Jason Webb)