Richest-of-the-rich table takes a pounding

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EVENTS moved quickly yesterday to show that estimating the wealth of the extremely wealthy is about as scientific as astrology. In the morning the Sunday Times' made its annual stab at guessing how much Britain's 500 richest people or families are worth, confidently setting a sum for each, with authoritative commentary.

There at number 188 (equal) with David and Ralph Gold, co-publishers of the Sunday Sport, came Sir Neville and Trevor Bowman-Shaw, whose fortune had more than doubled from pounds 30m to pounds 66m, we were assured.

The substance of their wealth is Lancer Boss, Britain's last big player in the fork-lift truck industry, employing 600 workers at its Leighton Buzzard factory. The survey said: 'We believe last year we seriously undervalued Lancer Boss. It is clearly a company run with a conservative balance sheet by its far-sighted management.' The business was valued at its total asset figure, pounds 66m, and 'the Bowman-Shaws own all the shares'.

However, even as the Sunday Times was going to press, the fork-lift truck maker was preparing to call in the receivers. Yesterday Sir Neville confirmed the company is now run by Grant Thornton's Alan Griffiths. At his home, Toddington Manor in Bedfordshire, he said: 'A receiver was appointed in (our subsidiary in) Germany and because of the effect of that on our company over here we asked the banks to appoint a receiver.'

It is by no means the survey's first or largest mistake. In eighth place in the 1991 version came Robert Maxwell, whose wealth had swelled from pounds 1.1bn to pounds 1.2bn.

The forthcoming Mirror Group flotation was described as a 'useful addition to the Maxwell fortune'. It noted: 'Maxwell seems to thrive on the pressure of his hectic deal-making and punishing schedule.'

Yesterday Ivon Fallon, deputy editor of the paper, conceded the weakness of the estimates. 'Maxwell used to be numbered among our billionaires . . . on the grounds that if you took his publicly disclosed shareholdings in his companies and multiplied them by the share price you got a figure of well into the billions. This, alas, did not allow for his debts - nor for the hundreds of millions he was taking out of his pension funds to sustain his share price.'

On the same ground rules, Asil Nadir was 36th richest in 1990 with a reported pounds 213m. By the next year, he was gone from the list.

This year two Swedish brothers, Gad and Hans Rausing, are top with an estimated joint value of pounds 5.2bn, the fruit of manufacturing food-packaging cartons.

The Queen's fortune after the year in which she became a taxpayer is guessed at pounds 5bn, the same as in 1993.