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Friday, July 9, 1999 Published at 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK


The family that bankrolled Europe

Nathan Rothschild with his family, painted by WA Hobday (1821)

The decision to auction 250 artworks owned by the famed Rothschild banking dynasty is a measure of how the once-great family has fallen.

Rosie Millard reports on one of the auctions of the year
The collection of paintings, pieces of furniture and decorative objects were stolen by the Nazis in 1938 and only returned to the family in February this year.

They were put up for sale because family members no longer have homes opulent enough in which to display them.

[ image: Christie's director, Elizabeth Lane, holds the early 16th century Cornaro Missal]
Christie's director, Elizabeth Lane, holds the early 16th century Cornaro Missal
The treasures, which together made up one of Europe's foremost private art collections, went under the hammer for £57m at Christie's auction house in London on Thursday.

The collection, which included a beautifully illustrated 16th Century prayer book that sold for almost £8.6m, was formed by Baron Nathaniel Rothschild, who died in 1905.

Ownership passed to his brother, Baron Albert, but, in 1938, the collection as seized by the German Reich within hours of Hitler annexing Austria.

The brothers were descendants of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who rose from a Frankfurt ghetto to establish the now legendary banking house.

Mayer's success derived from a pattern which has been successfully followed by succeeding generations - to do business with those in power, and to father as many sons as possible.

[ image:  ]
Female members of the family have always been barred from entering the business.

Nathan Rothschild, one of Mayer's five sons, established the British arm, which went on to become massively influential in the UK economy. The dynasty has been credited with "bailing out" the British government on more than one occasion.

Like his other brothers, who set up branches in Paris, Vienna and Naples, Nathan profited from the Napoleonic wars, which finished in 1815.

He is said to have ridden alongside the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. On realising a British victory, he dashed back to London and brought government stocks before anyone else knew of Napoleon's defeat.

By the time the business had passed to the next generation, the Rothschilds were influencing the national economy and politics of several European countries.

In 1875, Lionel Rothschild - the first Jew to enter British parliament - was, with a few hours notice, able to lend the £4m that allowed the British government to take control of the Suez Canal.

[ image: Mayer Amschel Rothchild's wife Gutle]
Mayer Amschel Rothchild's wife Gutle
Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister at the time, is said to have commented: "You can't have too many Rothschilds."

But the family's powerful reputation made them a prime target for the Nazis, who seized the Rothschilds' property shortly before the war.

Most of the art collection on sale at Christie's was hidden by Hitler's forces in salt mines. It was recovered by American soldiers after the war and turned over to the Austrian government.

But it stayed out of family hands for more than 50 years as the Austrian government refused to license its export abroad on the grounds the family was unwilling to return to Austria.

Instead, the works were put on display in the country's museums and libraries. Vienna agreed to return them to the Rothschild family at the beginning of the year, to right what it called an "immoral" wrong.

Yet some parts of Hitler's attack on the Rothschilds could never be put right. Parts of the family were financially ruined by the Nazis, who destroyed their factories as well as their investments.

Although the Rothschild family is still rich beyond the dreams of most ordinary folk, the money generated by the Christie's sale comes at a difficult time - at the start of this week the NM Rothschild merchant bank reported a 23% fall in annual profits.

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