A £1.1bn battle royal over three of London's most exclusive hotels kicks off today as the secretive billionaire Barclay brothers square up to Belfast property developer Paddy McKillen in a clash at the High Court.
Up for grabs are the five-star Berkeley, Claridge's and the Connaught in the culmination of an increasingly heated battle between Mr McKillen and the brothers, who plan to add the trio of landmarks to their ownership of the Ritz by securing full control of the Maybourne Hotel Group.
Neither Sir David Barclay or Sir Frederick Barclay – used to getting their own way – are in a mood to back down after Mr McKillen rejected their offer for his stake in the hotels more than a year ago. The trial is set to last until mid-April.
One source close to the affair said: "Perhaps this case shouldn't have come to court but now there's a certain amount of pride and emotion involved."
The complex history of the tug-of-war over the hotels stretches back to 2004 and the heady days of the Irish lending boom. Mr McKillen was one of five shareholders, in Coroin, a company which snapped up the Savoy Hotel Group for €1.1bn (£917m), backed by €800m of debt. Coroin – whose frontman was Irish property poster-boy Derek Quinlain – outbid the oil riches of Saudi Arabia's Prince al-Waleed bin Talal for the prize. Mr Quinlain promptly sold the Savoy to Prince al-Waleed and then renamed the Berkeley, Claridge's and the Connaught under the Maybourne banner.
The original Coroin shareholders fell to three during the next six years, leaving Mr McKillen with 36.2 per cent, Mr Quinlain with 35.4 per cent and Misland – a Cyprus-based trust which holds the 25 per cent stake of Manchester businessman Peter Green and stockbroker Kyran McLaughlin's 3.8 per cent.
In January last year the Barclays gained a foothold in Maybourne by buying Misland for £70m. Meanwhile several of Mr Quinlain's property investments defaulted in the crash and his debts were taken into Ireland's bad bank, Nama.
The Barclays seized the opportunity to do a deal with Nama to buy Mr Quinlain's debts, giving them effective control of his stake and the majority control of Maybourne.
Mr McKillen – who has just overseen a £70m refurbishment of the Connaught – will contend in the High Court that the actions of the Barclay brothers rode roughshod over his "pre-emption rights" to have first refusal on the stakes of any other investors in the hotels which came up for sale.
The particulars of the claim allege that "the object of the scheme has been to secure control for the Barclays brothers over Coroin and its assets at the expense of the claimant".
The Sark-based Barclay brothers – who also own The Daily Telegraph – will claim that Mr McKillen did not have the financial firepower to buy up the stakes the hotels, a claim hotly disputed by the Irishman.
The brothers' pursuit of Mr McKillen extended to buying the €800m in debts secured against Coroin from Nama last September with the purpose of holding a rights issue to refinance the debt, in effect forcing Mr McKillen to pay up £70m or to dilute his stake in the hotels.
Mr McKillen will argue that this debt transfer was unlawful, although he will be forced to reveal details of his financial affairs in court.
Mr Justice David Richards is expected to deliver his verdict on the long-running dispute and to decide on the ownership of the hotels in June.