gunther split image served by chef and on a yacht

Gunther’s life sounds like many people’s fantasy.

He’s got a personal chef serving him steak dinners, spends time cruising on a yacht surrounded by beautiful bikini-clad women and lives in a mansion with a staff of 27 caring for his every want and need.

And believe it or not, Gunther isn’t a prince, or a famous rapper… he’s a German Shepherd. 

The bizarre story of the canine who became the ‘world’s richest dog’ when his doting owner Countess Karlotta Liebenstein died and left him her multi-million fortune has been captured in new Netflix documentary series Gunther’s Millions.

In the series, Maurizio Mian tells the unbelievable tale that has captivated people around the world for decades.

Gunther being served by his personal chef

And even we fell for the spiel… very briefly.

In our 1998 book, we had a whole section dedicated to canine finances.

Underneath the record title richest dog, we stated in our book: “German shepherd ‘Gunther’ was left $65 million (£40 million) by his owner, German Countess Carlotta Liebenstein, and became, probably, the richest dog in the world in the 1990s.

“’Gunther’ lives in Tuscany, Italy, and enjoys taking trips round the Tuscan countryside in his chauffeur-driven convertible BMW, despite being fined when police caught him sitting on the front seat while the car was moving during the filming of a documentary for the German television channel ZDF.

“His hobbies include swimming in Livorno’s Bastia pool, of which he is honorary chairman. He also became the chairman of a football club after receiving begging letters from cash-strapped clubs.”

richest dog in our 1998 book

Pretty wild, right? And the whole world was hoodwinked by Gunther’s story at the time.

It seems we sniffed out the truth quite quickly though and didn’t feature Gunther’s story again.

In fact, richest dog is a record we’ve since stopped monitoring.

A spokesperson for Guinness World Records told the press in 1999 that there was not enough evidence to support claims of Gunther’s wealth and that he did not have the record title.

So, what really happened? And how did Gunther raise to such notoriety?

SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen Gunther’s Millions yet and are planning to watch it, you might want to stop reading for now.

In the doc, Mian says his family were close friends of the Countess and her son Gunther, who tragically took his own life.

When the Countess died in 1992 and left her fortune to her dog Gunther IV, she asked Mian, who was a close friend of human Gunther, to look after him.

The fortune has been passed down through Gunther’s bloodline and the dog featured in the series is Gunther VI.

Since then, and apparently in order to fulfil the Countess’ wishes, Gunther’s trust has funded the purchase of luxury yachts and Madonna’s former Miami residence, launched a pop group and released a single on which he barks along, and conducted experiments on people in a bid to determine the causes behind depression.

Gunther and his entourage

It’s only when documentary makers tell Mian they couldn’t find a death certificate for the Countess that he admits the whole thing is a lie.

The dog is real, and the money, but the Countess never was, and her son who was so depressed he tragically took his own life? He never existed either.

But the elaborate tale had everybody fooled. Gunther attracted the attention of media around the world, appeared on TV shows and in newspapers.

And Gunther’s team even claimed to use ‘stunt doubles’ when travelling with him through fear he’d be targeted due to his fame and fortune.

The money actually came from Mian’s family and Gunther, his then-girlfriend’s dog, inspired the whole thing.

Gunther and Maurizio Mian

Gunther’s not alone

Gunther isn’t the only dog in history who has supposedly got rich after the death of his owner.

Under that canine finances section in our 1998 book, we also reported on the most valuable dog, another record title we no longer monitor.

It read: “The largest legacy ever left to a dog was $15 million (£12.4 million) which was bequeathed by Ella Wendel of New York, USA, to her standard poodle ‘Toby’ in 1931.”

With the disqualification of Gunther in 1999, the title reverted to Toby, who had held the title for decades after inheriting what’s now equivalent to $282 million (£234.6 million) today. 

Gunther in his pool

The story of Toby and the Wendels is an equally fascinating one. He was the fourth (or fifth, accounts vary) of his name, and the beloved pet of one of the wealthiest women in New York City. 

Ella, along with her six siblings, had inherited a property portfolio that would be worth billions of dollars today. 

Their father was a daring speculator, whose grand 5th Avenue home was a hub for Gilded-Age high society, but his children seemed unwilling to take any risks, financial or personal. 

They never sold property or borrowed money to make investments; they stuck mostly to the same tenants in the same increasingly dilapidated and old buildings.

Distrustful of fortune seeking strangers, they never married and had few friends. By the start of the 1930s, Ella was the sole survivor of the Wendel clan, living in the family home with Toby and a handful of servants. 

Gunther is said to be the richest dog in the world

The office workers in the skyscrapers that towered over her garden walls were accustomed to the distant figure of the grey-haired old millionaire walking her white dog. When she died with no heirs in 1931, her will was the subject of much public speculation. 

Various "long lost relatives" and imagined secret children tried to make their case in the courts but were ultimately dismissed. The fortune was divided between various charities and universities. 

You might be wondering where Toby comes into this? Well, truth is, he doesn't. It's not clear when the legend of Toby the millionaire dog first surfaced (if nothing else, his name was spelled "Tobey"), but it seems that it has no more of a basis in fact than Gunther's millions. 

So why is it that people (including us, it would seem) are so eager to believe stories of millionaire pets? 

Though we're all familiar with the idea of a wealthy eccentric saying "leave everything to the cat", much to the fury of their relatives, you might be hard pressed to find an actual example. 

Gunther on his yacht with Maurizio Mian

We asked GWR legal counsel Raymond Marshall if such a thing was even possible and he was sceptical. 

"While the law may differ from country to country, generally speaking a pet can not directly inherit money from its owner,” he said.

“However, money can be left in a trust for the pet, with either one or a chosen number of people appointed to look after the money.

“These people would then be able to use the money however they see fit to care for the animal.

“So, I suppose Gunther’s story could have checked out… if it had been legitimate.”

Gunther poses in front of his mansion

In that case, where does the idea come from? You'd think that when Ella Wendel died, the press would have at least made a reference to the trope, but a search of contemporary newspapers doesn't turn up anything. This suggests that it was thought up some time between 1931 and the early 1950s, when pet heirs show up in numerous sitcoms and cartoons. 

One likely candidate is the now little-known madcap comedy Rhubarb, which is centred on the eponymous cat who inherits a major-league baseball team from its eccentric late owner. 

It was written in 1946 by humourist H Allen Smith, and received a successful film adaptation in 1951. It certainly doesn't seem that Tobey the elderly poodle was transformed into the Toby, the millionaire dog until sometime after that date.

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