Over a lingering lunch with a friend in the City of London some years ago, Baron David de Rothschild, the French head of the global Rothschild banking dynasty, was asked if he saw his thrusting young British cousin, Nat Rothschild, as his possible successor.
The baron, a stylish figure of the old school, thought for a moment as he sipped a good vintage from the family vineyard, then replied intriguingly: ‘Well, he’s the person of this [Rothschild] generation who seems to be most comfortable in the world of high finance.’
Today, for Nat Rothschild, that glittering prize of one day becoming the family patriarch has surely disappeared for ever.
His high-flying reputation has taken a humiliating nosedive as major City players who banked on his golden-boy reputation and his illustrious family name have turned against him. He also has to face the damning prospect that cousin David, the same man who had once talked so highly of him, may have had a hand in his downfall.
Rothschild vs Rothschild? Impossible, surely, in the closely-knit international family who all trace their gilded roots back to the Jewish Mayer Amschel Rothschild setting up a bank in Frankfurt in the 1760s.
There may have been the odd business split among the Rothschilds, but as the previous head of the dynasty, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, now in retirement at 81, declared only in 1996: ‘The first important strength of the family is unity.’
Certainly, there was some Rothschild unity on display yesterday. But it was directed with dismay and bemusement against lone operator Nat, 41, for the way he had allowed the family’s most precious asset — its name — to be dragged through the full glare of a public row involving mass boardroom resignations, accusations of mismanagement and allegations of missing millions.
For Nat, a close friend of Peter [Lord] Mandelson and a man accustomed to getting his own way while pursuing a lifestyle of private jets and business deals with Russian oligarchs, it is not only unedifying but a devastating setback.
In a bruising struggle, Nat Rothschild had taken on the board of a mining company, Bumi plc, that he co-founded and helped bring to listing on the Stock Exchange in 2011, with the Rothschild name helping him to personally raise £700million from investors.
Initially, shares in the firm — which he created with the influential Bakrie family, part of Indonesia’s ruling elite — soared. But then Rothschild accused the Bakries of weak control and money going missing, and demanded wholesale board changes — and the company’s value plummeted amid bitter acrimony.
The poisonous feud culminated this week in Nat’s attempt, with his mother Lady [Serena] Rothschild at his side at a shareholder meeting, to wrest back control of the company from the Bakries. He failed.
Crucially, the Bumi board had called in a merchant bank to help them and to act as their independent advisers, sort out the mess and write a report on what went wrong.