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The party over, Bavarian princess holds a most unusual yard sale

October 10, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

All was not well with the prince, however. The high living got to his heart, and he needed a transplant. This prompted the princess to wonder how solid his wealth was. Her investigations found that not all had been well with the prince's finances, either. He was deeply in debt, and when he died, inheritance taxes would pile on further burdens.

It had taken a long time to bring the family fortunes to this point. The pudgy ancestor Franz von Taxis, who in portraits looks sort of like a medieval version of the football telecaster John Madden, had established the basis of the family's wealth about 500 years ago. He founded the postal service of the Holy Roman Empire.

Princess Gloria wasn't about to watch all that slide down the drain in her lifetime. She persuaded the prince to dump his financial advisers and give the job to her.

"She learned and learned and learned," Ms. Sprueth said. "Even at night, when the children were in bed, she would be reading all the financial papers, and if there were problems or something she didn't understand, she'd ask somebody. . . . If she has a project in mind, whether it is a party or a business or whatever, she is always very focused."

A new role

By the time her husband died three years ago, during a second transplant operation, she was ready to charge ahead in her new role. She did so boldly enough to be named one of Germany's top personalities for 1990 by Manager magazine, a German business monthly.

She sold all but three of her 27 cars. She fired dozens of the liveried, bewigged footmen employed at the family's six castles, and if she thought there were a market these days for castles, she'd sell two of them. As it is, she'll probably have to rent out parts of them.

But when Sotheby's announced last year that she would soon begin hocking the family treasures, the howls of protest in Bavaria were louder than the ones over the birthday candles.

Bavarian officials were worried that some of the region's heritage would be sold right out of the country. But they were easily appeased when Princess Gloria gave them first crack at the items as long as they deducted the sale prices from the inheritance taxes she owed. Bavaria's take came to about $26 million, and the items will eventually be displayed in Regensburg.

The jewelry auction, held last November in Geneva, brought in nearly $14 million to the princess. This month's auction should bring in at least $15 million more.

The Pater protests

But there are still critics, particularly the 91-year-old Pater St. Emmeram, the long-bearded Benedictine monk who was the prince's uncle. The Pater lives alone at another Thurn und Taxis castle a few miles away in Regensburg, a former monastery with 100 rooms. It is a forlorn place, with peeling paint and crumbling plaster, situated among tall chestnut trees where magpies cackle throughout the day. Atop the building is a marble St. George, skewering a dragon with a golden pike. Somewhere indoors, refusing to come to the door these days for would-be interviewers, is the Pater.

Though he has protested the auctions and called the princess a "ruthless minx," friends say relations have thawed recently. He even dropped by once last week to browse through the auction goods, although he has also offered a solution in case the auction falls short of its goals: auction Gloria.

"You must understand, he is basically a 19th century person," Count von Spreti said. "He was brought up completely in awe of his parents, and for him to see a photograph of his father being sold is naturally very difficult."

Whatever the Pater thinks, the sale will go on. Items will include rare porcelains, ancient sculptures and magnificent furniture that piled up over the centuries in 25 family castles. There's a teapot valued at about $30,000, an old piano worth roughly $100,000 and a bronze 13th century water carrier valued for as much as $88,000.

Amid all this heritage on display, it can be jarring to come across items from the princess herself. Exhibited near the 13th century water carrier are two of her old Harleys, propped on their kickstands like a pair of Hells Angels roosting in the House of Lords.

In a larger room, set among the burnished tones of antique furniture, is a day-glo green chair designed by Princess Gloria herself. For a moment, it is almost as if the old Princess TNT were back, traipsing into the middle of the stuffiness, her mohawk blowing lightly in the breeze.

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