Family Feud Imperils a Prized Spanish Art Collection

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Urs Flueeler / Keystone / AP

Carmen Cervera, then Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, with her son Borja, at the memorial service in Switzerland for the late Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza on June 6, 2002

Standing in the serene, sunlit galleries of Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the average art lover would never suspect that behind the sublime beauty of, say, Fra Angelico's Annunciation or Francisco Goya's Women with Two Children, roils a family dispute of such sordidness that it would make Jon and Kate look like the Waltons. But when Borja Thyssen, son of deceased multimillionaire Heinrich Thyssen and his fifth wife, Carmen (Tita) Cervera, decided to lay claim to his inheritance, he unleashed a tide of criminal accusations and ugly recriminations that has kept the editors and producers of Spain's gossip industry in paroxysms of delight. In the process, he has also imperiled the future of one of the world's most prized art collections.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is made up of about 800 works that the government of Spain bought outright from Thyssen in 1992, and another several hundred acquired from Tita's 1,000-piece collection, which she in turn compiled with her late husband's largesse. Her part was loaned to the Spanish government in an agreement that expires in 2011. Borja says that two years ago he learned that he was co-heir of that collection, and notes that he has not as yet co-signed any agreement with the museum. It is this inheritance, which includes important works by Monet, Degas, Picasso and Kandinsky, among other A-list artists, that is now at stake.

The latest round in the familial slugfest began when 29-year-old Borja, who was adopted by Heinrich Thyssen when the Dutch-born Swiss industrialist married Borja's mother, showed up with a notary at the Madrid museum in early November and filed notice that he was reclaiming two paintings. Borja said that the two works — Goya's Women with Two Children in Fountain and Italian Baroque painter Corrado Giaquinto's Baptism of Christ, believed to be worth 7 million euros, were promised him as gifts by his father.

If Tita was antagonized by the prospect of her son removing two valuable paintings from the museum that houses her and her husband's collections, Borja's revealing interview with Hola magazine claiming that she had "hidden his inheritance from him," turned her positively Medean. On Nov. 3, the former Miss Spain filed a lawsuit against her own son, alleging "revelation of secrets" — which, depending on gravity, can be punished by fines and prison time in Spain.

Whatever her financial motivations may be, some observers attribute a motive more primal than economic to Tita's legal wranglings. "This is all about Borja trying to seek independence from his mother, and Tita not wanting to give it," says David Litchfield, British author of The Thyssen Art Macabre. "He was always her little prince, but ever since he married Blanca, Tita has been fighting to keep him at her side."

Fighting, and how. After first opposing his engagement to the 37-year-old Blanca Cuesta, and publicly suggesting in the gossip rags that her son's intended was a gold digger, the former Miss Spain turned baroness refused to attend the wedding. When the couple's son was born in 2008, Tita required the newborn to be DNA tested — five times — before accepting him as her legitimate grandson.

(Controversy and intrafamily feuds are part of the Thyssen dynasty fabric. The Baroness had Borja out of wedlock with a previous paramour but convinced her rich husband, who was 22 years her senior, to adopt Borja and to give him the Thyssen surname. She and Thyssen also adopted two girls. In March 2002, Thyssen, who died later that year, settled an expensive lawsuit with his eldest son over the disposition of the family's $2 billion trust.)

Borja himself realizes the root of the problem. In an interview with Hola, he said, "Blanca is the origin of all this. If I go home one day and say, 'Mom, I'm divorced,' I'm sure all this would change."

But while the Baroness awaits that happy day, one of Spain's great art collections hangs in the balance. With no apparent profession of his own, and a lifestyle that until now his mother has financed, those paintings, must be looking fairly attractive to Borja right now. "It's not my intention to sell the Goya," the young man told Hola, "But if it were necessary for the interest of my family, I would absolutely sell it."

A spokesman for the Thyssen Museum said it has no comment on the situation. But with the renegotiation of part of its collection less than two years off, its curators must surely be wringing their hands about Borja's latest statement, issued on Dec. 3. Now that his mother had sued him, Borja's lawyers wrote, the scion no longer finds any "moral impediment" to prevent him from doing the same. In which case one of the greatest collections of European art in the world could soon find itself on the auction block.