More than one eyebrow was raised at the recent news that Carmen Thyssen is going to auction off John Constable's The Lock, one of the essential paintings in her collection, due to her need for "liquidity." This notable work, which has been compared on occasion with Velázquez's Las meninas, will have a starting price of 30.7 million euros at Christie's auction house when it goes under the hammer on July 3.
The public image conveyed by the widow of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza is not exactly one of dire need. She owns luxury villas in La Moraleja, Marbella, Costa Brava and Lugano, as well as expensive cars and dazzling jewels, and employs around 80 people, including gardeners, secretaries and lawyers. But above all else, she possesses a priceless art collection, which includes eight Gauguins and one Picasso from his fauviste period.
The baroness justifies her need for cash by explaining that even though she may be rich in artworks, she has had no actual income since the death of her husband in 2002.
Now well known as a patron of the arts, Carmen Cervera first found fame after winning the Miss Spain beauty competition in 1961, and then as the wife of actor Lex Barker, of Tarzan fame. In 1985 she married Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza - he was her third husband; she was his fifth wife. It was he who introduced her to the world of art collecting, and it was reportedly she who convinced him to exhibit his valuable collection permanently in Spain. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is now part of Madrid's so-called Golden Triangle, along with the Prado and Reina Sofía, and is one of the capital's biggest draws for tourists.
Tha baron left me a great art collection, but little else"
The baroness has been loaning her more than 200 artworks to the Spanish state free of charge for the last 13 years. The collection was the subject of media attention last year, when it emerged that Carmen Thyssen was trying to get her hands on compensation for extending the loan further. Now, she says she understands that this is a bad time to be asking the Spanish government for anything, but insists that millionaires are also feeling the pinch of the crisis.
"After loaning my collection to this museum for 13 years without receiving a single penny, I had to do something," she says. "It's very painful for me, but there was no other way out. Keeping the collection here is costly to me, and I get nothing in return. I do it because I am president for life and because my name is Thyssen. But I want people to know that if I have to go to a meeting in China, I pay for that trip out of my own pocket. I do it happily and proudly because I love the museum, but those are the facts. I have never been paid for travel expenses - not for the trips, not for the chauffeurs, not for the houses..."
When her husband died in 2002, at the age of 81, his personal fortune was estimated at around 2.5 billion euros. But the inheritance was the subject of a bitter dispute between his widow and his children from previous marriages, and despite appearances Carmen Cervera denies being a very rich woman.
"People need to drop that notion. To get my husband's collection to remain in Spain, I had to give up just about everything that meant money. He left me a great art collection, but little else," she says. "I can't discuss the terms of the inheritance because of the agreement that all of the heirs entered into, but I received nothing afterwards. Heini [the baron] fought to ensure I would have my collection. I even had to purchase some paintings from the heirs, because my husband wanted me to."
It is my desire to keep the collection in Spain. Let us hope that things will work out"
One of these paintings was Mata mua, by Gauguin. "We purchased it three times. The first time, my husband bought it in Japan in partnership with another collector. When the latter decided to sell his share, Heini decided that it would be best to rebuy it at auction. Finally, all the heirs had the artwork for a while through a rotation system that they agreed on. My husband wanted me to buy it, and that is what I did, for the price that the family stipulated," she explains.
One of these heirs, Francesca Thyssen - the baron's only daughter by his third wife, the model Fiona Campbell - is furious over the sale of the Constable. Speaking to the Mail on Sunday, Francesca said that "the baroness has shown absolutely no respect for my father and she is simply putting her own financial needs above everything else. The proposed sale is entirely self-serving and should not go ahead. She likes to pretend she is a typical Spanish citizen who is struggling just like everyone else but that could not be further from the truth. The loss of the work will tarnish the image of the collection and she is part and parcel of a downward spiral."
"Besides getting furious, she can't do anything about it," notes the baroness. "She auctioned off part of her own collection in New York, including impressionist paintings she inherited from her father, and I didn't say anything. I would have liked to include them in the collection, but it was not to be. I am sadder than anyone else at having to auction off the Constable. [...] As you know, I offered it to [former Culture Minister] Ángeles González-Sinde but it wasn't possible. And I offered it to [current Culture Minister] José Ignacio Wert, but we all know what the situation is. We are all in the middle of a crisis."
Carmen Thyssen denies, however, that this sale could signal the beginning of a series of divestments to help keep up her lifestyle.
"This sale is a small injection of cash in my accounts. I have proposals from other places for specific works, but if I insisted on bringing my husband's collection here, it is also my desire to keep my own collection in Spain. Right here, at the Thyssen. Let us hope that things will work out for everybody."