The Norwegian royal family has long cultivated an informal image aimed at retaining public support in a country that was by no means wealthy when the country’s monarchy was reinstated. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported over the weekend how the image defies the reality of the royals’ sizeable wealth, much of which stemmed from the British royal family and is believed to be invested abroad.
“I would bet that the Norwegian royal family can be called rich, if not necessarily the richest in the country,” wrote author Tor Bomann-Larsen in an email to DN. Bomann-Larsen, who’s been granted full access to the Norwegian royal archives, will release the eighth book in his series about Norway’s first modern royal couple, King Haakon VII and Queen Maud this fall.
“It’s Maud who’s interesting here,” noted another royal author who’s also a political scientist and former official at the Royal Palace in Oslo, Carl-Erik Grimstad. Queen Maud was born a British princess and grandchild of Queen Victoria who was married to her cousin Prince Carl of Denmark. He was later tapped to become Norway’s new king, Haakon, when Norway broke out of its union with Sweden in 1905.
Grimstad has researched Maud’s fortunes that came largely from gifts and inheritance from her father, King Edward VII, who in turn had inherited a fortune and an empire from his mother Victoria. “There’s been a lot of secrecy around the fortune and the (Norwegian) royal family has never been open about it,” Grimstad told DN. Most of the private wealth now held by King Harald V, Queen Sonja and their family is believed to initially have been based on an estimated GPB 200,ooo that Maud herself inherited in 1925.
That was a lot of money at a time when one pound sterling cost around 30 Norwegian kroner. DN “carefully” estimated that it could amount to around NOK 1.2 billion today, since much of it was invested in shares traded in London. King Haakon reportedly didn’t want any of the money, which he inherited upon Queen Maud’s death in 1938, to be invested in Norway, thus keeping it out of the public eye. According to an overview of shareholdings at the end of 1937, the couple had invested mostly in overseas railroads, gold mines, “flying machines,” telefone companies, rubber and tobacco.
In addition came the value of the home in England that Maud’s father had given the couple and where their only child, who became King Olav V, was born. It was eventually turned back over to the British royal family, but all its contents were shipped to Norway, including precious items in silver and gold, art, jewelry, furniture, and other valuables.
Palace staff in Oslo began registering all the valuables several years ago and reported around 200,000 items as of last year, but declined to set a value on them. They include 952 oil paintings and more than 80 gold and silver clocks and watches. DN reported that it’s all currently spread around the royal family’s various private and state-owned property around the country, or stored at a secret location.
It remains unclear what’s actually state- or privately owned, and that’s “a well-kept secret,” DN reported. King Haakon’s decision to invest abroad meant that his fortune, which was later inherited by his son Olav and more recently Olav’s children including King Harald, was shielded from Norwegian government authorities and the public. Since the royals enjoy exemption from taxation, new disclosure rules regarding assets abroad don’t apply either.
DN reported that the royals’ fortunes have been invested in Belgium, Canada, the US, Venezuela, Argentina, the former Rhodesia and Siam, South Africa, Guinea, Sumatra, Scotland and England. The royals were early investors, for example, in Rolls-Royce, according to a hand-written letter to King Haakon in 1938 from Maud’s personal secretary and funds manager George Ponsonby.
While Queen Elizabeth has long been viewed as among the wealthiest women in the world, Norway’s royals have cultivated an image of having relatively modest means. Norwegian royal biographer Bomann-Larsen told DN, and has written himself, that Haakon was known for wanting to save money and “always feared provoking” Norway’s poor by flaunting the royals’ own wealth.
That carried on through the generations as the Norwegian royals did away with lavish coronations, tried to remain on good terms with labour unions during hard times and took part in nation-building after World War II. King Olav was famously photographed riding the tram during the oil shortage in the early 1970s, King Harald is regularly photographed at sports events, Queen Sonja has often been portrayed hiking and skiing in the mountains and now Crown Prince Haakon is carrying on the tradition, playing football against a local team in Asker while his wife has ridden trains and trams to promote books and reading.
“Norwegians have always liked the thought that we have a folksy royal family,” DN wrote, who shouldn’t flaunt their fortunes. Crown Princess Mette-Marit, the commoner from Kristiansand who married Crown Prince Haakon, has been criticized for carrying expensive designer handbags, for example, and the crown couple was also bashed after news broke that they’d spent expensive summer holidays on an exclusive island in the Caribbean and a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean.
Palace officials firmly deny the Norwegian royals have any holdings in tax havens, even though money from Queen Maud has been invested under an account labeled “King and Queen of Norway” at the exclusive Coutts & Co in London, now owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland. Coutts, which told DN it never comments on “specific clients of the bank,” has been linked to questionable overseas banking and tax havens, and fined by British financial authorities for violating white-washing regulations. Norwegian officials refuse to comment on the royals’ private finances: “We never comment on the management of the King’s private funds.”
They did disclose in early 1999, however, that the king had a private fortune of “between NOK 110 million and 130 million.” When asked again about King Harald’s private fortune in 2010, a palace spokesman said it amounted to “around NOK 100 million.” DN reported that the palace now also places the king’s and queen’s “private liquid fortune at around NOK 100 million,” with communications chief Guri Varpe saying it “is placed in funds and bonds in Norway and abroad.”
In addition come all the royal properties, both state- and privately owned. The state-owned properties include the royal palace, royal residences in Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim, the summer estate Bygdø Kongsgård in Oslo and Oscarshall. Then come all their privately owned property including the crown prince couple’s estate at Skaugum, the king’s timber lodge near Holmenkollen in Oslo, the family’s large mountain lodge Prinsehytta, the crown prince couple’s holiday homes in Sørlandet and the mountains, and Queen Sonja’s coastal retreat on Tjøme. DN collected value estimates on the private properties totalling around NOK 650 million. The royal couple’s controversial daugher, Princess Martha Louise, has recently tried to sell the seaside home at Hankø that she inherited from King Olav for NOK 35 million.
Newspapers Dagbladet and Aftenposten have reported extensively on blurry lines between the royals’ public and private wealth, and how much taxpayers are actually spending to fund Norway’s monarchy. It goes far beyond their annual royal grants in the state budget, known as apanasje in Norwegian. State funds have also been used on maintenance and staffing at other private property. The privately owned royal yacht Norge, often used on official trips, is staffed and maintained by the Navy.
Palace officials deny any lack of clarity in the divison between what is state- and private ownership” in the royal collections as well. Queen Sonja has her own private art collection, for example, while everything Queen Maud brought over from England is also considered private. Staff continues to downplay the royals’ wealth, noting, for example, that private items are often used in daily operations at the palace, or exhibited publicly.
Among palace staff’s “core duties,” wrote Varpe to DN, are the management, preservation and use of the “culturally historic values in the royal collections.” She added that “there is no value estimate of the royal collections,” noting that they “shall not be sold.” She also added that gifts received by the family are made public annually, and that any gifts given to King Harald in his role as head of state are registered as state property and belong to the state.