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France Baffled by Case of Missing Fortune

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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“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.

“The foundation was created to safeguard the heritage of the house of France,” Lombard says. “Everything it has done should be sifted through carefully.”

“The count’s lifestyle doesn’t explain at all the disappearance of all of the property,” Bruno Fouchereau, a French journalist who has written a tell-all book on the late count and his family, said in a newspaper interview.

Henri made no secret of his parsimony toward his children, once saying they would inherit nothing but “crumbs.” In a will written by hand one month before his death from prostate cancer, the count made his long-suffering wife of 68 years, Princess Isabelle d’Orleans-Bragance, great-granddaughter of the last emperor of Brazil, sole beneficiary of whatever worldly goods he left behind.

That means the children aren’t even entitled to one handkerchief until the 88-year-old widow dies, the lawyers say.

Children Rebuffed by Top Tribunal

In 1993, some of the count’s sons and daughters went to court to try to get their father to halt the fire sale of his possessions but were rebuffed by the highest tribunal in the country. “We now live in a republic in France,” Baratelli says. “That means you are free to spend what you want, how you want.”

In his turn, the count petitioned magistrates in a bid to get his hands on the pre-marriage property of his wife but failed. As of two years ago, Henri still claimed to possess the equivalent of $11 million in assets ranging from diamonds to land.

Jacques, the duke of Orleans, accuses his father of having “systematically broken” his children.

“For me,” Henri once said, “the family has always been a secondary event. I have worked for France all my life.”

The count gave his children no education--of the five sons and six daughters born to him and Princess Isabelle, only three earned the French equivalent of a high school diploma.

The count cut off all support to Jacques when he turned 18. Another son, Francois, died as a war hero in Algeria. A third, Thibault, was convicted as an accomplice in an armed robbery, spent 14 months in prison and died in 1983 of a heart attack while hunting in Africa.

When his oldest son, Henri, count of Clermont, divorced a member of the German aristocracy to marry a commoner, the count stripped him of his position in the dynasty’s succession.

“My father claimed all of us were idiots,” the younger Henri said at the time. In 1996, the count of Clermont was restored to his place in the succession and, at age 66, became count of Paris and pretender to the throne upon his father’s death. He has not joined his siblings’ legal quest to find out what became of the estate but has done nothing to stop it either.

The elder Henri, though born in France, was banished from the country until a law forbidding pretenders to the throne from entering was rescinded in 1950. Always dabbling in politics but often making wrong choices, he had links to France’s extreme right in the 1930s and offered his services to the collaborationist Vichy regime before departing for his estate in Morocco.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he wrongly believed that the disorder fueled by France’s war in Algeria would bring about a restoration of the monarchy. He courted De Gaulle, to no avail, and later allied himself with Socialist Francois Mitterrand. Like all members of the Orleans family, observers of European nobility note, Henri had long toes and could strike a match, light a cigarette and smoke it with his left foot.

Coincidentally, the day of his passing also was the day of a bid at reconciliation among the Bourbons, who are riven by bitter rivalries that stretch back for centuries.

During the French Revolution, a duke who was one of Henri’s ancestors voted for the execution of Louis XVI, his own cousin, probably with hopes of succeeding him. Instead, the duke was guillotined too. An elder, Spanish branch of the Bourbons, descended directly from Louis XIV, also lays claim to the French throne.

On June 19, one of Henri’s grandsons, the duke of Angouleme, wed the granddaughter of a supporter of the Spanish Bourbons. Henri was to have attended the civil ceremony in Dreux to make peace with the other branch of the family, but he died as the couple were taking their vows.


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