The Baron, Tita, Bermuda and the Thyssen family feud triangle
One of the world's richest men is suing his son over control of the family fortune. The Thyssens even built their own courthouse to stage a spectacular battle royal, as Stephen Dodd reports
BARON Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon Heini to his friends once boasted he had £50m of annual disposable income. He spent the majority of the money on fine art, but still had to find a way to stop £20m a year burning a hole in hisimmaculately tailored pocket.
The baron's personal resumé is an impressive cache by any standards. He has homes in Spain, France, England, Switzerland and Jamaica. At the age of 78 he is enjoying the devoted attention of his fifth wife, a former beauty queen 23 years his junior. His personal collection of art treasures is said to challenge that of the British royal family; a single antique soup tureen from his trove, auctioned last year at Sotheby's, set new records at around $10m.
Last week, however, Heini found himself flailing in the maelstrom of a sensational financial debacle. The tycoon claims he is out of pocket because his son, who controls the family trust fund, has defaulted on an arrangement to pay him £12m a year. Now the tycoon, who handed over the reins to Georg known as Heini Junior in 1983, has taken to the courts to get his riches back.
At the centre of a remarkable family feud are the flamboyant figures of Heini's wife Carmen, the former Miss Spain, and the less conspicuous but hugely influential Heini Junior, Thyssen's son by his first wife. The pair are at daggers drawn.
Carmen, herself a heavy spender on fine art, would win handsomely if Heini Junior was ousted.
Known as Tita by the paparazzi who cling to her like limpets, Carmen has a colourful history to match her present status. She married twice before meeting Thyssen, first to actor Lex Barker a one-time movie Tarzan and then to a Latin American playboy. Her second marriage was annulled when she learned her new ``husband'' was still legally married to someone else.
Tita's early notoriety was ensured before she married the baron, after nude photographs of her were published in a Spanish magazine.
Baron Thyssen himself is no stranger to the press. He divorced his first wife, an Austrian princess, to marry British model Nina Dyer.
The marriage barely reached its first anniversary, but in its brief span Nina managed to attract unwelcome publicity by refusing to travel without her pet black panthers. The animals developed a habit of wrecking hotel rooms wherever the Thyssens stayed.
The baron's daughter Francesca, by his third marriage to a Scottish model, won attention as a clubber in 1980s London, where she studied art.
Francesca, once a companion of the New Romantic pop impresario Steve Strange, is now a titular empress, married to a member of the illustrious Von Habsburg family. Those who remember her days at St Martin's College of Art, however, recall that ``Chessie'' was something of a wild child.
Even after her marriage, the European press predictably renewed interest in Chessie after a photographer's snap caught her sans underwear when her Versace ballgown lifted in the wind.
Thyssen's penultimate marriage, to a Brazilian woman 20 years younger than himself, lasted 17 years. For much of the time the partners lived apart and ultimately communicated through lawyers.
Such is the Thyssen capacity for colour that even family satellites regularly find their way into the gossip columns. Baron Steven Bentinck, Baron Heini's nephew, briefly starred in the Irish press as the boyfriend of Dublin actress Lisa Hogan, who survived a plane crash in his £1m Lear jet.
Bentinck successfully sued the British Daily Mail after an article implied he had been unfair to his ex-wife in a divorce payout. The offending piece suggested he was nicknamed ``Baron Bonkers'' and mentioned a string of girlfriends which included a former Playboy model.
The current legal battle, through which father hopes to wrench the family fortunes away from son, opened last week on the tax-haven island of Bermuda. Unwilling to wait until a long queue of smaller cases had been heard, the combatants agreed to have a new courthouse built for the occasion.
Squadrons of lawyers have been flown in for a trial which is widely tipped to last for several years.
In the court, the baron will be claiming his son has offended against the Thyssen motto Virtue transcends riches. Georg controls the trust fund into which his father placed the £1.7bn family fortune to safeguard it from the possible ravages of an acrimonious divorce. The trust plan guaranteed a hefty annual allowance for the baron, but Thyssen now says he has not been paid for four years and is owed £44mn.
The battle lines are drawn. Heini Junior can count Francesca among his allies. Both accuse Tita of influencing Thyssen against his own family, and claim she is acting from selfish interests. Under the current trust arrangements, Tita would receive little in the event of her husband's death.
For her part, the enduringly glamorous former Miss Spain continues to amass one of the finest art collections in Europe, and has pronounced her own verdict on the Thyssen dynasty's battle royal.
``Do you know of any family,'' Tita coolly requested of one reporter recently, ``which remained close where there is money involved?''