Don't ask Giovanna
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
How an Italian property developer acquired the first two of twelve farmhouses on the village high street.
More than thirty years after their parents emigrated to West Germany, the grown-up children of Hans & Ioana Schuller and Gustav & Eleonore Klosius returned to Copşa Mare or Grosskopisch, the village where they were born and their forebears had moved 800 years ago. I had the pleasure of meeting them and they asked me what had become of their childhood homes.
Here is the answer.
An Italian property developer and his wife discovered the Schuller and Klosius houses in Copşa Mare in 2005. Copşa Mare Guesthouses and Copşa Mare Properties Development are the marketing names behind a Romanian registered limited company called BEPA Investitii Consult SRL (hereafter BEPA), established in January 2005. Today, the business is owned by Paolo Bassetti (49%) and his wife, Giovanna Benazzo Bassetti (51%). However, at the time of the transactions described below, BEPA was owned 100% by Benazzo Giovanni Battista, the father of Giovanna Benazzo Bassetti.*
BEPA's registered first line of business is renting out property to tourists, with property trading and development as a secondary line of business. Here is a summary of the enterprise the family have formed to rent, develop and trade property in the village of Copşa Mare. It may be found on their website:
'In 2005, Paolo and Giovanna Bassetti decided carefully to restore a few houses in Copşa Mare. These are part of a sustainable project that will, through conservation and tourism development, help protect this part of Europe. The collaboration and enthusiasm of the local people has been fundamental in understanding and valuing their cultural heritage.'
'UP FOR SALE'
In 2013, The New York Times, under the title “The Truly Hidden Treasures of Transylvania” published an upbeat account of how the Italian couple bought their first house in Copşa Mare:
“Giovanna and Paolo Bassetti destroyed two Land Rovers in their year-long search for just the right property. But after visiting around 30 villages, in 2005 they finally found what they were looking for in this peaceful hamlet, which is dominated by a 14th-century fortified church and stands at the edge of a vast forest on the Tarnava Plateau. The Bassettis paid the state the equivalent of €20.000 for a farmhouse built around 1850. The building was “rotten and collapsing,” Ms. Bassetti said, and renovations of what they now call the Green House took a year…The project turned out so well and the allure of preserving an old home proved to be so strong that, over the years, the couple have bought nine other houses in the village. Ms. Bassetti has the rest of the houses up for sale.”
In actual fact, the acquisition of the Schuller house was less straightforward. When the Italians enter the story, the house was occupied by elderly council tenants. The newspaper mistakenly wrote that the Bassettis bought the house from the state.** This was not the case. In 2005, the state was not allowed to sell off its social housing stock to foreigners. In Saxon villages, this was largely made up of houses confiscated from Saxons under the communist regime. However, Romanian tenants could exercise a ‘right to buy’. Houses acquired in this way could not be sold for 10 years following the sale. The law was amended in 2011 and the time limitation removed.
The only legal way to get around the 10 year ban on the resale of social housing was by means of ‘la executare silita’, repossession and disposal of a property by a state-appointed bailiff in a public auction in lieu of payment of a debt. A foreclosure is both public and unpredictable, with notices posted on the seized house and in the local town hall for a period of one month, at the end of which there is a public auction of the property, an auction open to all comers. It is not a private sale and it is not clear at the start of the process who will end up owning the seized house.
As we have been told by none other than The New York Times, the Italian couple found their dream house in Copşa Mare in 2005. But the dream was not for sale, at least not to them. And yet by Christmas the following year, BEPA, 100% owned by Benazzo Giovanni Battista, acquired title to the house. Here is how.
BEPA bought the Schuller family home (since renamed ‘Green House’) in December 2006, but not from the state. In May 2006, the council tenants bought the property from the local council using money lent them by Ionel Vidrasan, a local builder and longterm collaborator with the Italians. The tenants defaulted on the loan of RON 42.814 (the equivalent of EUR 12.500 in 2006) and Vidrasan foreclosed on them. On 30th August 2006, the house was seized (reference number Biertan 241/2006). On 4th October 2006, BEPA sold the tenants another house in the village. And on 9th October 2006, just five months after the tenants had bought the house, the house was acquired by Vidrasan. The 10 year ban on the resale of the house was erased and Vidrasan promptly sold the house to BEPA, which became the owner on 18 December 2006.
The story of how BEPA acquired the Klosius house, since renamed ‘Orange House’, is remarkably similar. The house is one of the loveliest in the village. Like the Schuller house, it was not for sale to foreigners. And yet by June 2007, it was owned by BEPA.
The house was sold on 19th December 2006 by the local council to its tenants, who had been lent RON 48.000 (the equivalent of EUR 14.000 in 2006) by Ionel Vidrasan. Vidrasan foreclosed on them (reference number Biertan 8/2007). On 20th April 2007, BEPA bids RON 48.000 for the house in a public auction. On 25th April 2007, a Romanian property trading company in which Vidrasan held a minority stake called Trimitezi com sold the same people another house in the village. By early June 2007, BEPA becomes the new owner of the house.
At the time of the transactions described above, Ionel Vidrasan held a 0.1% stake in Trimitezi com, with the remaining 99.9% owned by an Italian registered company called PABE Invest SRL, 51% owned by Paolo Bassetti and 49% owned by Benazzo Giovanni Battista.
Both PABE Invest and its Romanian daughter company, Trimitezi com, were established in 2005. In early December 2006, Trimitezi com acquired a smaller house in the village which, as we have seen, it sold on 25th April 2007 to the tenants who had bought the butcher’s house from the local council. Less than a month after that, the company was put into liquidation, with PABE Invest following it into liquidation shortly thereafter. The acquisition and sale of this second house appears to be the only property transaction performed by PABE Invest and Trimitezi com in their short existences. It appears that these companies were created with the single purpose of buying and selling one crumbling farmhouse with an estimated value then of perhaps as much as EUR3000.
Just three years after BEPA acquired the Klosius house, it sold it. The house has stood empty ever since 2006. Today, the house is once again for sale, as are many of the other dozen or so houses since acquired by BEPA in the village. [In December 2020, Klosius house was finally bought back by the Klosius family. For details, follow this link.]
Schuller House: A telling chronology of transactions 5/2006 — 12/2006
Tenant buys Schuller house from council with a loan 5/2006
Vidrasan forecloses on new owner of Schuller house 8/2006
BEPA sells new owner of Schuller house a smaller house in same village 04/10/2006
Vidrasan becomes the owner of Schuller house 09/10/2006
Vidrasan sells Schuller house to BEPA 12/2006
Klosius House: A telling chronology of transactions 12/2006 — 6/2007
Tenant buys Klosius house from council with money borrowed from Ionel Vidrasan 12/2006;
Vidrasan forecloses on new owner of Klosius house and BEPA bids for Klosius house in public auction 4/2007
Trimitezi com (owned by PABE Invest & Ionel Vidrasan) sells new owners a smaller house in same village 4/2007;
BEPA becomes the new owner 6/2007.
And that, in brief, is the story of what became of the Schuller and Klosius houses in Copşa Mare. In both cases, the Italians resettled the original council tenants (who have since died), selling them smaller houses on the other side of the village. Indeed, the Italians have asked the author to put on record the fact that at least two council tenants have become householders thanks to them. This is true. And the Italians became the owner of two council houses thanks to two council tenants.
TWELVE AND COUNTING
Today, the Italians own at least a dozen houses in the village, all on the same street, as well as an unknown amount of farming land. And they are after yet more houses and land.
In July 2019, BEPA acquired the former Saxon village school building beside the Saxon church. The building, which had ceased to serve as a school many years ago, had become the property of a local bank after the building's owner, who ran it as a shop for a short time, was unable to repay a bank loan of some EUR30.000.
Then take the case of Copşa Mare 215. This house, in the centre of the village, stands between the Schuller house and another house also owned by the Italians. But Copşa Mare 215 is not social housing inhabited by elderly, indebted council tenants. Nor is the house abandoned and in need of ‘rescue’ by an Italian industrialist and his wife. The house is owned by its occupants, a leading local family that has lived in the village for many generations.
Ionel Vidrasan, who, as we have seen, helped the Italians acquire the Klosius and Schuller houses, has, according to the owners, offered to buy Copşa Mare 215. They believe that he is acting for the Italians and given Vidrasan’s long history of collaboration with BEPA, and taking into consideration the location of the house, this seems a reasonable conclusion to draw, although it cannot be documented. The Italians wish the author to put on record that BEPA has never offered to buy a village house unless the owner invited it to do so. Quite possibly - after all, Ionel Vidrasan is not BEPA.
Whoever Vidrasan wanted Copşa Mare 215 for, the family refuses to sell and resettle elsewhere. Instead, it has planted 800 walnut saplings on land outside the village, an indication of its intention to stay in the village, its home, for many more years to come. The family is now building another house on its plot sandwiched between the Italian-owned guesthouses— for children and a growing number of grandchildren.
This is immensely encouraging and a reason to celebrate: A leading local family is investing in the future of their village as a place in which to work and raise children, and in this way is helping to maintain a healthy balance between local and foreign ownership of houses and land in the village, a balance that some might consider threatened by the acquisitive behaviour of Paolo and Giovanna Bassetti.
* In late 2009, Benazzo Giovanni Battista's 100% share in BEPA was reduced to just 1.3%, with the rest transferred to a Cypriot off-shore entity called CLEAGH Holding Limited. The real owner of CLEAGH was not made public. It was only in late 2010 that Paolo Bassetti appeared on public records as an owner of BEPA, and only in the Spring of 2014 that his wife acquired her father's stake in BEPA.
** I wrote to the journalist who wrote The New York Times article and pointed out the mistake. He replied as follows: "I finally found my old notes relating to this article and it turns out that I made a mistake. Ms. Bassetti told me that they had acquired the house through a family who bought it from the state. She said the total cost of the house and another property nearby, also bought from the family was 20,000 euros and 6,000 euros in legal expenses. "
An open-source story — all facts stated here are available on public commercial and land registers in Italy and Romania, and in some cases on-line. As of September 2019, Paolo Bassetti is a director or partner in three other firms focused on property acquisition and development: RC2, a private equity fund incorporated in the Cayman Islands investing primarily in property in Romania, and two Italian limited companies.
Below is a screenshot of BEPA's balance sheet for the years 2005-2020. The company has only ever lost money, apart from 2015, the year BEPA sold Copsa Mare 135 to the author and his wife.