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Belgium’s high society art murder

The fatal shooting of a Baroness, allegedly by her stepson, has captured the public imagination

Flower wreaths pictured after the funeral ceremony for Baroness Myriam Ullens de Schooten in Lasne, Belgium, in April (Photo by NICOLAS MAETERLINCK/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

“What is Belgium famous for?” quips Ray, the Dublin-born hitman played by Colin Farrell in the 2006 darkly comic thriller In Bruges. “Chocolate and child abuse,” is the first part of his not-so-funny answer. As characterisations go of one of western Europe’s most vibrant and bon-vivant cultures, its bleak assessment ranks maybe just below one given by a real-life, recently accused Belgian killer. He called his country “a corruption bubble” and “a pseudo democracy”.

Those are the words of Nicolas Ullens, a former Belgian secret service agent who at the end of March allegedly killed his 70-year-old stepmother, Baroness Myriam Ullens de Schooten. She was shot six times, and his 88-year-old father, Guy, was wounded in the leg. The two victims, who were on speaking terms with several of Europe’s royal houses, were in a car outside their residence in the Belgian village of Ohain when it all took place.

Prosecutors say that the killing stems from a “family quarrel of a financial nature”, and the Belgian press has been speculating wildly about the once-huge family fortune, the outsider stepmother, who is said by some to have been in the process of squandering it, and the various swirling familial intrigues. At the centre of it all is a long-running dispute concerning Baron Guy Ullens de Schooten Whettnall and the question of who would inherit his money.

Nicolas Ullens, 57, a son from the baron’s first marriage is, according to his sister Brigitte, “a very sweet man”. He once worked on the Russia desk of Belgian counter-espionage. But he seems to have begun drifting towards the realm of conspiracy theories, and he started up a YouTube channel on which he attacked Belgian and European politicians. 

Under questioning from prosecutors, Nicolas Ullens said that the conflict with his stepmother Myriam Ullens was more than just financial. According to the Belgian Dutch-language daily Het Laatste Nieuws, he said: “She ruined the close tie that I had with my father. That caused me great suffering.” He also claimed that Myriam’s two children from a previous marriage, systematically received preferential treatment over him and his siblings.

To those who know Belgium, the image that lingers in parts of the Anglo-Saxon world is of a country that is fundamentally boring. This is possibly because it is home to both the EU and Nato, technocratic and bureaucratic organisations that are, like the nation that hosts them, well-organised, dull and dead. 

But that is not so. The name Ullens might not ring a bell for most people, not even in Belgium. But as founders of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, UCCA, in Beijing in 2007, they have played an outsize role in the Chinese contemporary art scene. It was at the time the first major contemporary art space in the Chinese capital and remains, with several subsidiaries, at the heart of the contemporary arts scene in China. After Guy Ullens turned 80, he found a group of Chinese patrons to take over and run it.

It may seem remarkable that a Belgian baron and his wife should set up a museum in the Chinese capital, but Ullens is part of a very strong Belgian tradition of art collecting. So strong, in fact, that Belgian collectors form a central component in the global art market, particularly in contemporary art and certainly in terms of influence. 

Alain Servais is a Belgian collector who started out in the 1990s, and he explains his country’s edge in contemporary art as stemming from it being an artificial entity, “created as a neutral buffer” after the Napoleonic wars. “In a way we don’t have a past, and it allows us to be open to anything,” he told The New European. “France and England were late in contemporary art because they have the Louvre and the British Museum. We don’t have that, so it makes us more open.”

Pascal Gielen, a cultural sociologist at the University of Antwerp, agrees, and also draws a distinction with the UK and US. “Collectors in Belgium are visceral. They’re open to the new, innovative and experimental items, quite obscure sometimes, and what they don’t get into is hyper-conceptual theoretical art, where the story is more important than what you see, which you more often see in the Anglo-Saxon countries,” says Gielen.

That tendency towards the avant-garde has led to the success of artists including Francis Alÿs, choreographers such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and theatre directors such as Ivo van Hove. Its fashion designers, such as Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester, are internationally respected.

Belgium’s role as a fashion hub may in fact have contributed to the demise of Myriam Ullens. Born in Germany, she moved to Belgium aged 15. She pursued a career in business, but stopped working in 1999 after her marriage to Guy Ullens. Together they focused on art collecting and philanthropy, funding a school in Nepal, and also a breast cancer charity, which she established after surviving the disease herself.

In 2010 she founded the fashion label MUS, her initials, later changed to Maison Ullens. Her designs were worn by such luminaries as Melania Trump, but news reports suggest the business was losing millions and that the label became a focus of family arguments. 

The precise financial circumstances of the family remain a secret. “Belgian nobility makes a point of not talking about such things,” says Luc Duerloo, a historian at the University of Antwerp. “There is a saying here: ‘pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés’, to live happily, live hidden,” he says. 

The Ullens family did not exactly live in the shadows, but they didn’t feature in the society pages either, despite reportedly having personal friendships with Belgium’s royal couple and even having once hosted Prince Charles, before he became king.

Guy Ullens is a scion of old Belgian nobility and is related to the royal houses of Sweden and Norway. The family had, among other assets, a large sugar factory, and after selling that it became a major stakeholder in Weight Watchers. The latter’s declining share price is said to have affected the family’s fortune, although it is unclear whether Ullens himself owned the stock.

According to Duerloo, eight out of the 10 richest Belgian families are aristocrats, although some are only relatively recently ennobled. To give an idea of their wealth: the 500 richest Belgian families are estimated to have a combined fortune of around €80bn (£70bn), of which the 10 richest families possess €68bn (£59.7bn).

Duerloo explains that every year the Belgian king still bestows new aristocratic titles, although nowadays they are usually not hereditary. The balance between French and Flemish speakers is carefully maintained so as not to upset either community, both of which appear to cherish their aristocrats. 

In the French-language media, the Ullens are regularly referred to as Walloon, i.e. mainly French-speaking.  But after the murder of Myriam Ullens, one of Antwerp’s main newspapers, Gazet van Antwerpen, a Flemish-language publication, correctly stressed that the family’s “roots decidedly lie in Antwerp”, which lies in the non-French-speaking part.

Guy Ullens’s father was a diplomat based in Nanjing in the 1920s – back then it was a particularly aristocratic occupation. That is no doubt one way Ullens’s love for China and Chinese art might have been sparked. But initially, when he started collecting in the 1960s, his attention was focused elsewhere. He built up, among others, a collection of Turner watercolours. These he auctioned off at Sotheby’s in London in 2007 for close to £12m, to finance the couple’s new Chinese centre, the UCCA.

Servais says the Ullens were typical Belgian collectors, “original and adventurous”, and he calls their founding of the UCCA “visionary”. Guy was the driving force: “The true collector was Guy, Myriam came much later.” That they were adventurous was confirmed as recently as four years ago, when their foundation announced a big push into digital art. 

But then the stories began circulating in the press. “The feeling when we saw all this,” said Servais, “was one of concern.” As Guy aged, he was less and less seen in Belgium. “She was the only one we saw for a while.”

The couple was reported to have been living mostly in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, where they are also said to have entertained some of their royal connections. They also registered their art foundation, Fondation Guy & Myriam Ullens, in Switzerland, which is not an uncommon practice. Servais points out that the tax climate for collectors in Belgium is better than, for example, in the neighbouring Netherlands, but if you’re as wealthy as the Ullens, Switzerland offers more options for “tax optimisation”.

Whatever the truth about the family’s financial circumstances, it’s hard to imagine that the extended Ullens family would have been left destitute. Contrary to the UK, both in Belgium and Switzerland it’s almost impossible to disinherit a child.

In Belgium, the Ullens shooting is regarded by many as banal: “it could happen anywhere and in any family”. Which it could, of course. Yet it also has a distinctive Belgian flavour, with the art collecting, the old nobility that reaches across the language divide and even with the conspiracy-inclined screeds of the suspected killer, Nicolas Ullens, against the country’s political elites. 

The country has always had its dark side. The horrifying bungled Dutroux child abuse and murder cases of the 1990s led to conspiracy theories alleging high-level paedophilia rings, for which there was no evidence. During the Covid pandemic, anti-lockdown conspiracy theories were widespread, to such an extent that the country’s pre-eminent virologist and others were threatened by a radicalised soldier who ended up killing himself.

For a while Belgium was also plagued with terror attacks, such as the bombings in 2016 at Zaventem airport and in Brussels, and in 2014 a shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Criminal violence, for example in the drugs trade, is more a feature of the Netherlands than Belgium. And the kind of high-society killing like the case of Myriam Ullens almost never happens, which, as one observer remarked, is why it has caused such a stir.

In a statement, the police said that, when Nicolas Ullens was arrested: “The suspect offered no resistance and explained that he had killed his stepmother. He was carrying a handgun, which was seized. He was deprived of his freedom.”

It’s a banal description of a killing that captures something of the deep social oddities within Belgian society which people on the outside do not see or understand. Few countries are so misunderstood. Despite the intense interest in a gruesome family murder, it looks very much as if it will stay that way.

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