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France Baffled by Case of Missing Fortune

Mystery: At death of pretender to throne, his vast estate has vanished.

August 02, 1999|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — When Henri d'Orleans, count of Paris and pretender to the French throne, died this summer at the ripe old age of 90, the blue-blooded playboy who had been one of France's wealthiest men left behind a puzzling, bizarre legacy.

In the bungalow where the Bourbon aristocrat had lived with his mistress, bailiffs found a pair of bedroom slippers and six handkerchiefs embroidered with the royal crest. And nothing else belonging to him.

In another residence in the Paris suburbs also owned by the count, there were no paintings and no furniture, although traces on the floors and walls showed they had been there at one time. The apartment had been stripped--down to the lightbulbs and light sockets.

"There was nothing belonging to the count of Paris. No silver, no porcelain, no paintings, no money, no financial papers, no clothing," says Paris lawyer Olivier Baratelli. "Nothing."

In a case of well-bred suspicions and possible skulduggery that has attracted great attention in France--and is worthy of a novel by Honore de Balzac--some of Henri's nine surviving children have retained Baratelli and other attorneys to find out what happened to one of the great fortunes of this country, amassed by a royal line running back 300 years to Louis XIV's younger brother, the duke of Orleans.

"Two hundred and fifty million francs [about $40 million] from the count's estate have disappeared," Baratelli says. But the lawyers admit that is a pure guess and one they have intentionally kept low. Another attorney, Jean-Paul Baduel, successfully petitioned a court to seal the bungalow and empty apartment so that investigators can try to determine what is missing.

"I have evidence that there were things in that flat," Baduel says. "What we don't know is where they've gone."

The lawyers are especially keen to hear what Henri's mistress, former nurse and governess Monique Friesz, 13 years the count's junior, has to say. She is not listed in the phone directory, and Baratelli's superior, Paul Lombard, says he has been trying, without success, to contact her.

However, some people familiar with the case say her modest bungalow near Dreux, where she and the count, lovers since 1975, had been living, bespeaks anything but a lavish lifestyle. So the attorneys also want permission to sift through the records of a foundation that the count had created and endowed to hunt for any signs of improprieties.

$650 Million in Castles and Land

When dapper, mustachioed Henri Robert Ferdinand Marie Louis Philippe d'Orleans, a onetime volunteer in the French Foreign Legion, took over as head of the royal house of France in 1940, he was said to be worth at least $650 million in castles, forests, farmland and other holdings.

His ancestor Louis Philippe, the last French king, had abdicated in 1848, but the count hoped to see the monarchy restored in his lifetime. (Although the late President Charles de Gaulle referred to him respectfully as Monseigneur, or My Lord, when asked if Henri might succeed him, he is said to have wisecracked: "The count of Paris? Why not Brigitte Bardot?")

Unfortunately for the count's offspring, he was a gambler and ladies' man who haunted the casinos of Deauville and Biarritz. To finance his costly pleasures, he sold off land and castles, antique furniture, jewelry and objets d'art, often at ridiculously low prices.

Once, Henri was detained at the Swiss border carrying a ruby-and-diamond necklace that had belonged to Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI's guillotined queen. He later sold it to the Louvre for $1 million.

In 1950, the head of the House of France was identified as the single largest landholder in the country. After his death June 19, the Paris daily Liberation dolefully observed that "the count of Paris has succeeded where the French Revolution failed: . . . destroying one of the most beautiful, noble inheritances in French history."

But the lawyers for four of his children--led by Jacques, present duke of Orleans--don't think energetic womanizing and compulsive gambling can explain the disappearance of the entire fortune. Over a decade and a half, starting in the early 1980s, Henri sold off holdings worth an estimated 100 million francs (about $16 million), including palaces, chateaux and manor houses in Sicily, Portugal, Brussels and the Ardennes forest, frequently agreeing to poor deals in his eagerness to secure cash.

The count picked up one chunk of cash--about $3 million--by disposing of a painting by the 19th century French master Ingres. At a single auction in 1997, Henri unloaded 450 works of art, pieces of furniture and jewels.

Other prime properties, including a chateau at Amboise, overlooking the Loire River, and the royal chapel at Dreux west of Paris where he was buried, were deeded by Henri to a foundation he created in 1973 and named for an illustrious ancestor, Saint Louis, king of France from 1226 to 1270.

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