Fire breaks out in Chinese exile’s penthouse hours after arrest

Blaze at Sherry-Netherland followed Guo Wengui’s indictment on fraud charges

A photo illustration of Guo Wengui and 781 Fifth Avenue (Getty, Tony Hisgett; cropped by Beyond My Ken, CC BY 2.0 - via Wikimedia Commons)
A photo illustration of Guo Wengui and 781 Fifth Avenue (Getty, Tony Hisgett; cropped by Beyond My Ken, CC BY 2.0 - via Wikimedia Commons)

An exiled Chinese tycoon’s Lenox Hill penthouse was in the news Wednesday for a series of dramatic events that have nothing to do with its monthslong attempts to sell. 

A two-alarm fire broke out at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel at 781 Fifth Avenue on the same floor as the unit owned by Guo Wengui — hours after he was arrested there, WABC reported. The fire on the 18th floor burned for at least 90 minutes before it was controlled.

Wengui bought the co-op for $67.5 million in 2015. The 15-room penthouse hit the market in Feb. 2022 asking $45 million, but has since been reduced to $32.5 million.

Guo, a financier and associate of political strategist Steve Bannon, was arrested and charged Wednesday morning with orchestrating a conspiracy to defraud his online followers out of $1 billion, the New York Times reported. 

The unsealed federal indictment claimed Guo and a co-defendant used Guo’s strong online presence to solicit investments for entities and programs, for which he promised “outsized financial returns and other benefits.” Prosecutors alleged Guo used the funds acquired to buy a yacht, expensive mattresses, a Ferrari and a mansion.

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Guo is a Chinese exile who was a prominent businessman in the country until 2014, when he was forced to flee the country after being accused of corruption. He sought political asylum in the United States, claiming he would’ve faced imprisonment had he remained in China.

His fortunes haven’t been much better in the U.S. A judge last year found him in contempt and ordered him to pay $134 million to a creditor after determining Guo arranged to move his yacht out of territorial waters to doge collection. He also filed for personal bankruptcy last year.

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Sherry-Netherland Hotel at 781 Fifth Avenue and Guo Wengui (Credit: iStock)
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Guo Wengui and the Sherry-Netherland penthouse at 781 Fifth Avenue (Photos via Wikipedia Commons; Getty Images and Douglas Elliman)
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Ensconced in the penthouse and entangled in lawsuits

The LLC that technically owns the Sherry-Netherland penthouse, Genever Holdings, has tried unloading the apartment several times. The building’s co-op board even sued Genever for unpaid maintenance charges amounting to nearly $1 million; at the time, the board accused Guo of being behind the shell company, even though it had previously been associated with his son.

Sotheby’s International Realty’s Serena Boardman, who has the penthouse listing, did not respond to a request for comment.

Holden Walter-Warner