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Profile: The incombustible Carmen Cervera Thyssen

She holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Spaniards, not so much for her role as a matron of the arts, but for her insouciance in the face of a family feud.


Carmen Cervera

More than as a matron of the arts, it is Carmen Cervera’s family misfortunes that have won her a place in the nation’s heart - and so much media coverage.

Ever since her now deceased husband, German industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen, sold his unrivalled art collection to the Spanish state in 1992, Carmen Cervera has rarely been out of the headlines, her not-quite rags, but certainly to riches, story, combining a glamour, art, and a good old fashioned family feud providing the gossip writers with plenty of copy.

Her latest appearance in the media came after she decided to sell Constable’s ‘The Lock’ earlier this month. The early 19th century landscape is now one of the most expensive British paintings ever sold and went under the hammer for more than €27 million.

The former beauty queen — she was Miss Spain in 1961 — says she had to sell the masterpiece to raise cash. One of the heiresses to the massive Thyssen fortune, her personal collection, valued at around $700 million, includes half a dozen works by Gauguin, a Picasso, and hundreds of others. She also has four estates, some 80 employees, and a huge yacht. At a recent press conference, the blond, bejewelled 69-year-old said she hoped the canvas would fetch a good price. “People say I’m a millionaire, but I’m not. Maybe I am in terms of the all the paintings I own. But I’m asset rich and cash poor.”

The move may have been a bid for public sympathy after she agreed to loan her personal collection, housed in an extension of the Thyssen Museum to the state for a second consecutive year, free of charge.

For the last two years she has been trying to negotiate the sale to the Spanish state of 240 works from her private collection, but given the ongoing budget cuts, it’s hard to see her getting any money out of the deal in the foreseeable future.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is made up of about 800 works bought outright by the Spanish state from Thyssen in 1992, along with the 240 pieces from Tita’s collection, which she in turn compiled thanks to her late husband’s largesse.

More than her difficulties as a matron of the arts, it is Cervera’s family misfortunes that have won her a place in the nation’s heart, and so much media coverage.

Hans Heinrich Thyssen was Cervera’s third husband. She was his fifth wife. All along the way there were children. And now they are all fighting over the family fortune, including pieces in the Thysssen collection itself. In short, it’s the kind of blue-blood feuding that Spain’s tabloid press can’t get enough of.

In 2007, Borja Thyssen, whom Hans Heinrich adopted, decided to lay claim to his inheritance, unleashing in the process a deluge of accusations and counter accusations.

Borja says that he is co-heir to Cervera’s collection, and points out that he has not as yet co-signed any agreement with the museum. It is this inheritance that is now at stake.

In late 2009, he turned up at the Thyssen gallery with a notary, filing notice that he was reclaiming two paintings, ‘Goya’s Women with Two Children in Fountain’ and Italian Baroque painter Corrado Giaquinto’s ‘Baptism of Christ’, valued jointly at €7 million, and saying that his father promised them to him.

Worse was to come. Borja subsequently gave an interview to upmarket gossip rag Hola saying that his mother had “hidden his inheritance from him”. Cervera filed a lawsuit accusing him of “revealing secrets”, which is a criminal offense in Spain.

According to David Litchfield, the British author of The Thyssen Art Macabre, which traces the family’s history back to its links with Nazi Germany and beyond, says that the feud between Tita and Borja is simply the playing out of a possessive mother refusing to allow her only son to grow up.

She opposed his engagement to the 39-year-old Blanca Cuesta, publicly suggesting in the gossip rags that her son’s intended was a gold digger. Cervera 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.

Borja understands that his wife is the cause of the rupture with his mother. 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.”

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.”

Matters between mother and son reached a new low in January 2011, when Borja took his mother to court accusing her of unlawful appropriation of the two paintings. In March this year, a Madrid court shelved the case on the basis that under Spanish law, lawsuits cannot be brought between children and parents in cases of unlawful appropriation.

The baroness has always said that the paintings belong to the Thyssen collection, and as such cannot be the property of her son, given that not only have the paintings never been in his possession, and that no donation or cession contracts have ever existed in his favor. Borja Thyssen can still opt for a civil suit, but without any documentation to back up his claim, such an action is very unlikely to prosper.

Meanwhile, March 2011 saw the opening of the Museo Carmen Thyssen Málaga, which houses the Baroness’s collection of Andalusian paintings. Also scheduled to open is a new venue in San Feliu de Guixols (Gerona) that will house another outstanding group of works from her collection.

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