At the height of the 2016 ski season, when fluffy powder snow covered the slopes above her Verbier bolthole, the Duchess of York decided to become a permanent resident of Switzerland, saying that alpine country makes her feel ‘free and happy’.
‘I find here a positive energy that allows me to focus on new philanthropic activities,’ she told Swiss newspaper le Nouvelliste. ‘And I appreciate good wines. Dôle [a famous Swiss red wine] in particular. And this white wine called Les Murettes. A delight. Not to mention the dried meats and cheeses!’
Verbier is ‘my home’, the Duchess added, explaining that ‘administrative procedures are under way’ to enable her to officially settle in the tax haven region of Valais.
The Yorks are being sued by the original owner of the £18m holiday home (pictured) in Verbier, Switzerland, that they bought in 2014
The move came at a happy time for Fergie and former husband Prince Andrew, who had a year earlier completed the purchase of Chalet Helora, an ultra-high-end property in the exclusive resort, which would act as a ‘nest egg’ for their two daughters and allow the family to indulge its love of skiing.
With the help of some wealthy friends, including a certain fast-living financier called Jeffrey Epstein, the couple had also managed to pay off extensive debts that had threatened to engulf the Duchess for the second time in her adult life.
Now they could afford to live in some style, dividing time between Royal Lodge, the home in Windsor Great Park Andrew owns on a 75-year lease, and the seven-bedroom luxury chalet, which had previously boasted six full-time staff, and was available to rent for more than £22,000 a week.
Said to be furnished with chic antiques, it featured a large master bedroom draped in animal furs, plus a 650 sq ft indoor swimming pool, sauna, sun terrace, boot-room, bar and lavish entertaining area. Near neighbours include Sir Richard Branson and singer James Blunt.
The couple owe the former female acquaintance £6.7million as they did not pay their whole bill for Chalet Helora and are now being taken to court, five years and four months later
‘Neither of them have their own property and they wanted to buy the chalet as an asset to leave to their children,’ a source told reporters at the time.
But that, of course, was then.
Four years on, and the Duchess of York never did become a permanent resident of Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Chalet Helora is suddenly at the centre of a new and ugly chapter in the seemingly never-ending compendium of embarrassing situations to befall the Royal couple, now both 60 years old.
This latest caper revolves around one thorny issue that so often seems to rear its ugly head in the York household: money.
It emerged yesterday that the duo are the subject of aggressive court proceedings pursued by the original owner of Chalet Helora, a former acquaintance to whom they owe the considerable sum of £6.7 million.
Court papers filed by this anonymous individual’s law firm, Etude du Ritz, say that a chunk of that sum was due to be repaid by December 31.
However, more than four months on it remains outstanding, according to sources, ‘despite messages from Sarah promising that payment would be made’.
After taking out a mortage on the property, they made a deal with the vendor to defer payment by five years, until the end of 2019. They agreed to then pay £6.7m plus interest
The original owner, said to be a female beneficiary of a trust fund, is believed to have sold Chalet Helora to the Yorks in November 2014 for 22 million Swiss francs, roughly £18m.
To raise the funds, the Duke and his ex-wife took out a mortgage for 16 million francs (£13.25m).
The remaining six million francs (£5m) was to have been paid in cash, with each stumping up half.
But for reasons that are unclear, they never settled that portion of the bill.
Instead, the Royal couple struck a deal with the vendor to defer payment by five years, until the end of 2019. They agreed to then pay eight million francs (£6.7m), representing the initial sum, plus interest.
(We must — of course! — assume that the mortgage company was made aware of and sanctioned this unconventional arrangement).
Five years have now passed, plus that four months, and the Royal couple have failed to make good on their debt. As a result, their creditor has decided to go to court.
But the Royal couple failed to make good on their debt and as a result their creditor, who is also former friend of the couple, has decided to go to court
Adding to the awkwardness of the situation, I gather that she is a former friend of the couple, who hosted members of the Royal Family at Chalet Helora long before agreeing to sell it.
It is, all told, a dreadful mess.
Yet behind this thorny dispute lies a more serious wider conundrum for Prince Andrew and his former spouse.
Namely: how on earth, given ongoing strife concerning his relationship with the late paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, can the Duke finance his daily existence?
Since withdrawing from royal duties in November, he’s been forced to rely on a small Navy pension, estimated at around £20,000 a year, along with a reported annual allowance from the Queen of around £250,000.
Sarah Ferguson, for her part, has lost a string of commercial contracts.
Yet they continue to live in some style, employing a house full of servants and (judging by photographs on their social media streams) maintaining expensive collections of jewellery and wristwatches, and receiving regular visits from a florist.
Furthermore, the Duke is now being forced to foot expensive legal bills, having hired Gary Bloxsome, a criminal law specialist who represents ‘ultra-high net worth individuals in international jurisdictions’ to represent him in litigation relating to the Epstein affair, along with one of Britain’s leading extradition lawyers, Clare Montgomery, QC.
The Yorks believe they have stuck to their side of the bargain, regarding the chalet, and are shocked to find themselves being dragged through the courts
Andrew is no longer using the Royal Press office at Buckingham Palace, and is instead retaining Mark Gallagher, a PR supremo nicknamed ‘the backroom fixer’, who helped exonerate VIPs falsely accused of paedophilia by the fantasist Carl Beech — better known as ‘Nick’ — in 2014.
In other words, the duo are earning less than ever and spending far more.
‘Everything that happened after August last year [when Epstein was arrested and committed suicide] had the effect of dramatically altering their financial position,’ says a source with knowledge of the affair.
‘Their ability to earn money, or raise cash, disappeared very quickly, while their spending rose dramatically. It very quickly became apparent that they wouldn’t be able to pay their outstanding debts related to the Chalet.
‘So they approached the vendor and asked to instead be allowed to sell it, and then pay off the debt.’
I understand the vendor initially agreed to this arrangement, which saw Chalet Helora formally valued at around 22 million Swiss Francs, or just over £18 million, the same price the Yorks had paid for it five years ago.
However for reasons that are unclear, it was not properly placed on the market by the time the coronavirus struck. This appears to have caused escalating friction.
Regarding the current situation, and how to resolve it, there now appear to be two competing versions of events.
Pictured: Prince Andrew, Sarah Ferguson and family outside their chalet in Verbier, Switzerland on his 43rd birthday
The Yorks believe they have stuck to their side of the bargain, with regard to the chalet, and are shocked to find themselves being dragged through the courts.
‘Their intention is to sell as soon as possible, and clear this debt, and that was what they were doing, so they are perplexed as to why this has suddenly escalated in this manner,’ says a source.
Though the chalet was not formally placed on the market, local sources tell me they had ‘put feelers out’ with a view to finding a buyer and a sale ought to be achieved in the coming months.
The vendor is not so sure. Coronavirus has devastated the real estate market, particularly for high-end ski properties, since Alpine resorts were at the centre of the European outbreak, and there is no guarantee they will be able to fully open next season.
She is not just reported to have grown tired of waiting for cash to arrive, but also apparently feels the Duchess — who has form for leaving creditors in the lurch — has been giving her the brush-off.
‘Fergie has always been awful with money. She ran up five-figure debts twice, once in the 1990s, which she paid off by working with WeightWatchers and once in the 2000s which Andrew was able to sort out using his status and connections,’ says one Royal insider. ‘Recent events mean he’s simply no longer able to do that.’
Since the Epstein scandal the Duke has been forced to rely on a small Navy pension, estimated around £20,000 annually, along with a reported £250,000 yearly allowance from the Queen
The Epstein scandal has also brought an end the Duke’s globe-trotting career, firstly as Britain’s roving trade ambassador, and secondly with his Pitch@Palace initiative, part of which is structured as a company whereby he is the sole beneficial owner.
These travels had for years allowed him to rub shoulders with a motley collection of international businessmen, politicians, and statesman, many of whom hailed from some of the world’s most corrupt and despotic regimes.
Often, the connections made on such trips could be hugely lucrative. For example, in 2008 it emerged that he’d sold his marital home, Sunninghill Park, to an old chum called Timur Kulibayev, a son-in-law of the then president of Kazakhstan.
The price paid was £15m, some £3m over the asking price, despite the fact that the vulgar property had been languishing on the market for years and was subsequently demolished.
Meanwhile in 2011 the Prince (who was then supposedly Britain’s roving trade ambassador) telephoned, then personally emailed, another Kazakh businessman called Kenges Rakishev on behalf of a Greek water company called EYDAP and a Swiss finance house called Aras Capital.
Messages subsequently obtained by the Mail revealed that the firms wanted to bid for a £385 million contract to build water and sewage networks in Astana and Almaty, respectively Kazakhstan’s capital and largest city, the first of which boasted Rakishev’s father-in-law as mayor.
Describing the consortium as ‘we’, and outlining what he called ‘the water plan’, the Prince then said his private secretary, Amanda Thirsk, would personally help introduce the firms to senior Kazakh political figures.
According to Greek executives involved in the bid, Andrew was to have been paid a commission of one per cent, or £3.85 million, for helping broker a successful deal.
The Mail’s revelations about the affair fuelled suggestions that the Duke had quietly been earning funds as a fixer, using his Royal status and connections gleaned via official duties to earn money from facilitating business deals.
He has always denied that charge, though has never explained why he sent the emails regarding the sewage project.
Either way, both he and the Duchess of York presumably thought, when they purchased their Swiss ski chalet, that during the ensuing five years they would be able to raise the £5m required to pay it off. Clearly that was not the case.
In an apparent bid to drum up gainful employment, the Duchess this week opened an account on the networking website Linked In, describing herself as ‘a global humanitarian, businesswoman, best-selling children’s book author, producer and wellness advocate’.
The page also offered her services as a ‘spokesperson’ and ‘producer’. But as recent events suggest, it’s probably a bad idea for anyone thinking of hiring her to let her — or for that matter her husband — anywhere near a balance sheet.