Thursday, December 16, 2010

"L'affaire des meubles de Laeken"

Empire-Furniture at the Royal Palace of Brussels, with old Beauvais tapestry, a wedding present by French king Louis Philippe to his son-in-law, Leopold I. Photo courtesy of the Belgian Royal Household
Since we just commemorated the Golden Wedding of King Baudouin I and Queen Fabiola, perhaps it is appropriate to examine an infamous affair of state, obscured by malicious gossip, rumor and misunderstanding, which erupted in the aftermath of the royal marriage: the fate of the furnishings of Laeken Castle, following the departure of the groom's father, King Leopold III, with his second wife, Princess Lilian, and their three children, Alexandre-Emmanuel, Marie-Christine, and Marie-Esmeralda, to the country estate of Argenteuil, a government property near Waterloo. For the first nine years after his abdication, Leopold and his second family had continued to live at Laeken with Baudouin in close and cordial harmony. Political pressure, however, had ultimately obliged Leopold, Lilian and their children to leave Brussels. The move took place during the honeymoon of Baudouin and Fabiola.

Unfortunately, it provoked yet another series of tragic and tiresome calumnies of Leopold III, who had already been driven to abdication by unfair charges of betraying his country and allies during World War II. Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens, who had offered King Leopold little support during these sad events, and who disliked Princess Lilian, accused the couple of plundering the furnishings of Laeken and installing them at Argenteuil. In his memoirs, he insinuated that Baudouin and Fabiola had returned home to an empty palace! Endlessly repeated by politicians, journalists and even some historians, this version of events has become deeply entrenched in the public mind. In Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal (2006), however, Michel Verwilghen demonstrates in meticulous detail, on the basis of official documents, that this account cannot be true.

It is true that Leopold and Lilian transferred some furnishings from Laeken to Argenteuil. In fact, they were more or less obliged to do so, as Argenteuil, at that point, was largely unfurnished. Thus, as he had a perfect right to do, King Leopold installed part of his personal property in his new home. It is also true that he transferred to Argenteuil some state property, pieces he particularly loved for their historic value. Yet, even this is not outrageous. The furnishings were merely moved from one government estate to another; it is not as though the public patrimony was actually depleted. In any case, Leopold and Lilian certainly did not leave Laeken empty! On the contrary, even after their departure, the official inventories of the Castle of Laeken and the Royal Palace of Brussels listed hundreds and hundreds of lavish furnishings; over a thousand pieces, in fact, the personal property of King Leopold. In 1975-1976, a commission evaluated the furnishings owned by Leopold, but left at the royal palaces, at nearly 19, 000, 000 Belgian francs of the time! At Argenteuil, Leopold and Lilian simply lacked the space to accommodate these treasures. Accordingly, in 1977, the former King sold them to the Belgian state. If anything, he was a victim rather than a villain in all these transactions!

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