A rented Bentley limousine pulls up to the curb in front of Christian Liagre, an exclusive furniture design shop on Fulham Road in London. The driver steps out and opens the door for the gentleman seated in the back. The nattily dressed passenger - Austrian banking scion Julius Meinl V - exits the car while, 21 yards away, a hidden camera records his every move.
International espionage? Not quite. The story described in Austria's News magazine last weekend resembling the plot of a James Bond thriller follows the developing intrigue from ongoing disputes between Meinl and Tel Aviv-based Gazit Globe, a real estate empire controlled by Chaim Katzman, over dealings surrounding Gazit Globe's subsidiary: Atrium European Real Estate.
According to the magazine, Atrium hired private investigators to track Meinl, his family and others, but quoted Atrium's spokesperson as responding "The people being investigated were never subject to any threatening situations."
In August 2010 Atrium sued Meinl Bank, its principal Julius Meinl V, and several other bank officers for €2.1 billion in a London court for damages caused to Atrium when it was controlled by Meinl Bank before being sold to Gazit Globe.
The lawsuit stated that Meinl initiated a series of transactions, including repurchase of shares and stock issues that were subsequently investigated by Austrian authorities.
Meinl, under investigation himself, was released on €100 million bond. Gazit Globe claims that Meinl's activities significantly damaged Atrium and caused its value to plummet.
Meinl Bank didn't hold back any punches, launching a €1.2 billion countersuit against Atrium, Gazit Globe and Katzman - who also serves as chairman of Atrium - in the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC ), located in Paris. The bank claims that any damage to Atrium arose only after transfer of its control to Gazit Globe, and that its new owners drained the company of funds and refrained from making new investments. Sources close to Meinl expressed worry over Atrium's financial position and its ability to pay down its debt to bondholders.
So why the cloak and dagger shenanigans? The two sides also dispute where the cases should be tried. Atrium says London, where Meinl and his associates spend most of their time. Meinl Bank insists that the case be heard in Paris.
Differences in law between the United Kingdom and France make this a critical issue. Atrium took the step of hiring detectives to provide proof that Meinl's primary base of operations is in London.
Sources close to Atrium responded that it couldn't be avoided since Atrium had sued Meinl in London while Meinl claims he doesn't live there.
Sources on Meinl's side claim that, although he spends some of his time in London, this doesn't mean he lives there permanently.
Atrium owns about 160 commercial centers in 11 countries in Central and Eastern Europe.