Wildenstein Art Dynasty Faces a Tax Trial in France

Guy Wildenstein, the billionaire art dealer, is accused of shielding a prized art collection from tax authorities to avoid a hefty inheritance bill. The case has dogged his family for more than a decade.

Guy Wildenstein, the international art dealer, is scheduled to return to court in Paris this week to face accusations of massive tax fraud and money laundering in a lengthy legal battle that has slowly chipped away at the prestige and secrecy of a family dynasty that once dominated the global art market.

French prosecutors are on their third attempt to convict Mr. Wildenstein, 77, whom they say hid significant chunks of his family’s storied art collection and other assets in a dizzying labyrinth of trusts and shell companies when his father, Daniel, died in 2001, and after his brother, Alec, died in 2008. The motive, according to the prosecutors, was to avoid paying hundreds of millions of euros in inheritance taxes.

Mr. Wildenstein, the Franco-American family patriarch and president of Wildenstein & Co. in New York, was acquitted of the tax fraud and money laundering charges in 2017. That ruling was upheld by a higher court but then overturned in 2021 by France’s top appeals court, which ordered a new trial to be held, beginning Sept. 18.

The Wildensteins, a family of French art dealers spanning five generations since the 1870s, were notoriously secretive about their collection, which included works by Caravaggio, Fragonard, Manet and many others.

As a result, there is no full accounting of the many masterpieces thought to be in a collection that has at various times been scattered across the globe. A Swiss free port, a nuclear bunker in the Catskill Mountains of New York, a former fire station in that state and a vault in Paris are among the many places parts of the collection have been stored. The family also has galleries in New York and Tokyo, as well as a prestigious research institute in the heart of the French capital.

But since the 2000s, repeated legal entanglements slowly lifted the curtain on the Wildenstein business, many of them the result of suits filed by women in the family who were cut off from its vast fortune during messy divorces and inheritance squabbles.

Claude Dumont Beghi, a lawyer who represented Sylvia Wildenstein, Daniel’s widow, over allegations that her stepsons cheated her out of her inheritance, said that the mounting legal woes were “a bit like a cluster bomb.”

“It was an extremely discrete dynasty,” said Ms. Dumont Beghi, who became a confidant for Sylvia until her death in 2010 and was closely enmeshed in the case against the Wildensteins. She published several books about the family and was sued for defamation by Mr. Wildenstein in 2016, although he later dropped the suit.

Now, Ms. Dumont Beghi said, “this case has put the spotlight on them.”

State prosecutors allege that the Wildensteins were responsible for “the longest and most sophisticated tax fraud” in modern French history, by concealing art and other assets under complex trusts registered in far-flung places like the Bahamas or the Channel Islands, and by whisking away millions of dollars in artworks to tax havens.

Daniel Wildenstein, left, and Alex, his son, in 1963.John Orris/The New York Times

In doing so, prosecutors say, the family grossly underestimated its enormous wealth and assets, which at the time also included properties in Paris and New York, a sprawling ranch in Kenya, and a number of thoroughbred horses.

A lawyer representing Mr. Wildenstein in France declined to comment. In the past, his defense has been that he had been told by legal advisers that he did not have to disclose artwork to tax authorities if it was technically owned by trusts and not by the family itself.

Tax fraud carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years and potentially hefty fines, in addition to any back taxes. It is still unclear what financial penalty prosecutors will seek against Mr. Wildenstein if he is convicted at the new trial, but at previous ones they had sought a 250 million euro fine, or about $268 million.

Seven other defendants — who had also been previously cleared — are also standing trial in Paris.

They include Mr. Wildenstein’s nephew, Alec Jr., and his estranged sister-in-law, Liouba Stoupakova, who had been married to his brother Alec. Ms. Stoupakova has been locked in a legal battle of her own against the Wildensteins over her share of the proceeds from trusts created by her late husband. A coterie of Swiss and French legal and financial advisers and foreign trust companies also stand accused.

In past trials, judges had ruled that although the family had demonstrated a “clear intention” to conceal its wealth, its actions were either past the statute of limitations or fell into a legal gray area, before France enacted legislation in 2011 that requires foreign trusts to be declared to the authorities.

Léa Saint-Raymond, an economist and art historian at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, said the Wildensteins had over the decades built a vast information-gathering network, by buying up the correspondence of artists or their dealers, by keeping close tabs on which collectors owned what, by becoming the publishers of a famous French art review and even by digging through notarial archives to find lost paintings.

“They are an indispensable part of the market thanks to the information they have gathered since the 19th century,” Ms. Saint-Raymond said. “And information is the lifeblood of the art market.”

The family’s influence has waned somewhat as the tastes of the ultrarich have shifted to more contemporary art and demand for historical art has ebbed. But their trove of information is still valuable. They remain a leading authority on old masters and Impressionists and have published definitive catalogs on painters like Monet and Gauguin that give them all but final say over authentication questions.

That professional and scholarly authority will remain, at least for now, Ms. Saint-Raymond said, even if Mr. Wildenstein’s personal reputation suffers from the tax case.

“What’s really harmful is when you are suspected of trafficking false artwork,” Ms. Saint-Raymond said. Despite the trial, she added, “a Wildenstein provenance is still pretty safe.”

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