Fall Of The Royal Fortune

"Kings, Queens and Despots," a short list of the world's most wealthy rulers published by Forbes magazine, comes with a number of caveats. Valuing these multibillion-dollar private fortunes is a "tricky business," says Forbes. Most royal families decline to comment on their wealth. But last December, as the 2003 list was being compiled, a prominent member of the Netherland's illustrious House of Orange broke the family's long silence on the issue. Prince Bernhard, feisty 92-year-old father of Queen Beatrix, phoned Christopher Forbes, who is married to his German niece, and demanded that he stop printing "bulls--t" exaggerations of his family fortune. Forbes told him to call editor Luisa Kroll, who wanted evidence. Bernhard faxed a handwritten letter with enough detail about holdings in companies like Royal Dutch Shell and ABN AMRO to persuade her to slash the estimate from $2.5 billion in 2002 to $250 million. The Oranges would have been in the billionaire class occupied by the House of Saud and Prince Hans Adam II of Liechtenstein. But when the list was published earlier this year, they were wedged in among the lowly multimillionaires, like Yasir Arafat and Fidel Castro.

It was the first time Kroll had ever gotten a call from a complaining prince, but the plainspoken Bernhard is not your typical royal. In an increasingly transparent financial world, the massive restatement is a reminder of how difficult it remains to penetrate the regal sphere. Dutch stipends are a matter of public record--Queen Beatrix takes home 3.8 euros million per year in "salary" and other expenses. But support for the family is spread across so many departments and "hidden posts" that "nobody, no member of Parliament," knows the real total, according to the Republican Association, a Dutch group of royal reformers. As for the Orange family fortune, which goes back to the early-19th-century spice-, rubber-, tea- and coffee-trading exploits of King Willem I in the East Indies, the discreet Dutch generally consider the subject off-limits. "We are not so rich," Bernhard said in a brief phone interview. "People think we are stingy with money and the truth is that we have to be careful with money."

So why would a prince bother downplaying his fortune for the commoners? According to people who have spoken to Bernhard recently, he worries that exaggerated estimates could inspire personal attacks--either from criminals like those who tried to kidnap his wife, Juliana, in the 1970s, or perhaps from budget cutters in Parliament. (In fact, Parliament last discussed royal funding in the 1960s, when Juliana complained that she had to spend her own money on royal-household expenses, and Parliament agreed to pick up the tab.) The whole episode also fits the prince's reputation for impulsive meddling. Last year, after two supermarket workers were fined for injuring a thief while handing him over to the police, the outraged prince called newspapers to complain about the fine and made a public show of paying it for the two men.

His actions this time have exposed cracks in a family that prides itself on not behaving badly. Bernhard told a close family friend that his daughter was angry at him for calling Forbes. She has been titular head of the family since 1980, when she took over the mantle of queen from her aging mother, but that doesn't mean Bernhard listens to her--"he just reminds her that he is her father," says one royal watcher.

Once a high flier (who in 1954 helped launch a secretive gathering of the global elite called the Bilderberg Group), Bernhard's reputation took a sharp blow in the Lockheed scandal of 1976. He was accused of taking a $1 million bribe. Queen Juliana kept the law at bay, but the prime minister devised a devastating penalty: a onetime Spitfire pilot, Bernhard was forbidden to don a military uniform in public. The wounds are still raw. He and his wife have barely spoken since, and live in separate halves of the Soestdijk Palace. Each has different treasurers, says a former member of the government information service.

That's led some Dutch royal watchers to suspect that Bernhard is now underestimating the family fortune. It's not clear he's privy to the right information: like all royal spouses, Bernhard lives on a stipend and does not have access to the family capital. Republican Association member Hans van den Bergh scoffs at the $250 million estimate and figures the Oranges have a fortune worth between $17 billion and $23 billion, including Rembrandt paintings and silver services from tsarist Russia. "He has a sharp mind, he knows what he wants and he gets what he wants," says Cor de Horde, editor of a monthly royals magazine. "If Prince Bernhard phones you up and doesn't like what you've written, you have to stand firm." Estimating the real wealth of kings, queens and despots remains as tricky as ever.