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God save the (very rich) Queen

April 21, 2006 16:39 IST

Queen Elizabeth II, who has spent 54 dutiful years on the throne of England, is celebrating her 80th birthday in a characteristically low-key fashion.

The woman who has worked with ten British prime ministers and whose net worth we peg at an estimated $500 million (£280 million) is spending the week honoring other 80th anniversaries.

On Wednesday, there was a Buckingham Palace luncheon for other people born on April 21, 1926. The next day the queen commemorated the 80th year since the granting of royal charters to two London institutions, the BBC and the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

On Friday, her actual birthday (not to be confused with her official birthday, the anniversary of her coronation, celebrated with due pomp and ceremony in June), the queen will spend the day quietly at Windsor Castle with family and friends, most of whom privately call her Lilibet.

Britain is undergoing the usual bout of public royal reverence it does so well on these occasions. There is to be a national service of thanksgiving at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

The BBC has already offered up an 80th birthday documentary that would have shamed Hallmark Cards in its sentimentality. The Queen also has her own birthday Web site. On display at British museums this spring and summer are photos of the queen's life, a selection of her dresses and jewelry, and ten of her Leonardo da Vinci drawings.

Said to be in good health, the queen is a patron of more than 620 charities and organizations and has made official visits to 129 countries. She recently visited Australia and Singapore (she is particularly devoted to the association of former British colonies known as the Commonwealth) and plans to go to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia later this year.

Yet rumors persist that this world traveler, who ranked No. 75 on Forbes' 2005 list of the World's 100 Most Powerful Women, is

starting to slow down and that her son Prince Charles, first in line for the throne, may soon take over some of her daily duties.

One thing's for sure: The queen will some day pass down more than just the throne. When her father King George VI died in 1952, the Queen inherited a personal fortune that includes valuable real estate like Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland (where she usually spends parts of August and September) and Sandringham House in Norfolk, England (where she usually spends Christmas) as well as fine art, gems, antiques and an extensive stamp collection started by her grandfather King George V.

She is also known to own a number of properties in London and has a substantial stock portfolio.

The queen's personal $500 million fortune does not include famous sites like Windsor Castle and Kensington Palace, which are technically owned by the Crown as an institution and generate revenue for the tax man. They are part of a property portfolio worth an estimated $9 billion, which generated a surplus of £184.8 million on revenue of £245.4 million in the year to March 2005.

Nor does the tally count the invaluable Crown Jewels or the Royal Art Collection, for the same reason.

The publicity-shy queen, who has a passion for dogs, horses and racing pigeons, still contends with the tabloid coverage of her scandal-prone family. Last year, for instance, much was made of the fact that she did not attend the April wedding of her son Prince Charles to his longtime mistress Camilla Parker Bowles.

Her grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry both keep the family in the gossip pages, as does her former daughter-in-law Princess Diana, whose death is still being questioned and investigated years after the event.

Cristina von Zeppelin, Forbes