World: pounds 2bn at stake in case of Thyssen versus Thyssen

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BARON HANS Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon, patriarch of one of the most powerful families in Europe, owner of the finest art collection in the world after that of the Queen, is about to plunge into legal combat with his eldest son over control of a fortune worth more than pounds 2bn.

The Baron, 78, "Heini" to his friends, is frail now after a stroke in 1994 but has finally found happiness with the present Baroness, the former Spanish beauty queen Carmen "Tita" Cervera, after four disastrous marriages. You would think he would be quietly enjoying his twilight years. But an epic lawsuit opening any day now in Bermuda against his son, Georg Heinrich (Heini Jnr), marks the bitterest moment of his life. A member of the legal team contacted in Bermuda declined to say when the case would start.

The Thyssen empire was founded by the Baron's grandfather, August, known as "King of the Ruhr", and consolidated by his father, Heinrich, and his pro-Nazi uncle, Fritz, who financed Hitler's war machine. Heinrich married an impoverished Hungarian aristocrat and had himself adopted by her family so he could inherit the Thyssen-Bornemisza title.

For a century, Thyssens determined the industrial destiny of Europe. The Baron's art collection is so precious that Prince Charles pleaded in vain for it to come to Britain. Through Tita's efforts, the 1,500 paintings went instead to a revamped palace in the heart of Madrid. Spain was so thrilled at this spectacular acquisition that an adjacent gallery is planned for the Baroness's own 700-strong collection.

But the Thyssen name bears a curse, and comes laden with sagas of betrayal, odium and blood feuds over riches that soared to almost incalculable levels. The family motto "If I stop I go rusty" should, the Baron admits, more accurately be: "Business success but personal failure." Baroness Carmen, 55-ish, "has been my great love and saved my life when no one cared; it's a pity we didn't meet sooner".

Not all the family share that opinion. Georg (Heini Jnr) disapproved of the vivacious and astute Baroness the moment she married his father in 1985. The Baron handed over an international network of 100 or so industrial and high-tech corporations to Georg in 1983, making him one of the most powerful businessmen in the world. It is a decision he bitterly regrets. "I would not advise anyone to do what I did. You should never give out legacies before you are dead," he once confessed. He claims his son tricked him and cut him off from promised regular payments.

"I gave Georg everything I had and put him in charge of my companies. Now he has snatched them from my hands," the Baron said recently. Hence, in what Tita dubs "the court case of the century", he seeks to repossess his patrimony. He says the lawsuit is necessary because relations with his son and his son's lawyers have broken down. "It is sad that I have to bring court proceedings. However, I had no choice."

The baron wrote to his four other children in January 1997, saying he was reclaiming his company interests and seeking compensation: "I want you to know that it remains my intention that each of my children should obtain his or her proper share of my assets upon my death. At present, Heini Jnr has manoeuvred himself into a position where, in the absence of action on my part, he would get far too much, and I wish to correct this." Georg, 49, who lives quietly in Monaco, vigorously denies his father's claims.

Under present arrangements, Tita inherits half her husband's wealth, while each child receives one tenth. Georg is the product of the Baron's first marriage to the Austrian princess Maria Teresa de Lippe. Heini divorced her, claiming she was "insufferable", but inherited 400 paintings from her father.

Then there are Francesca and Lorne, from the marriage to his third wife, the Scottish model Fiona Campbell-Walter, and Alexander, from his fourth marriage, to the Brazilian Denise Shorto. Like the others, that ended in acrimonious and expensive divorce. Finally, Tita's son Borja, whose father she never disclosed, was adopted by the baron after their marriage.

Francesca is married to Karl von Habsburg, grandson and heir of the deposed Austro-Hungarian emperor Karl, and Heini complains that his daughter constantly pesters him for money. But even the strong-willed Francesca, who fought bitterly to prevent the art collection going to Spain, acknowledges she is no match for Baroness Tita.

The threads of Georg's business empire are drawn together by the discreet Continuity Trust in Bermuda, set up on his advice. The Baron's plan is to have the island's High Court declare the trust null and void, which would mean, he says, that the companies would revert to him. The dynastic wrangling in Thyssen vs Thyssen could last well into the next millennium.