In a French case dubbed ‘Dallas sur Seine’, an art-dealing dynasty is accused of concealing Monets and Picassos to deceive the taxman.
In a wood-panelled courtroom deep within Paris ‘s sprawling Palais de Justice, the talk last week was of trusts and financial statements, of Old Masters and thoroughbred horses, spectators were outnumbered by a small army of lawyers whose words were often drowned out by the sound of police sirens blaring through an open window.
The low-key nature of the proceedings, conducted in a mix of French and English, belied the seriousness of what was at stake, however: almost a billion dollars and the future of a dynasty that has helped to dupe the art market since the time of the Irnpressionists.
Guy Wildenstein, 77, stands accused of money laundering and tax evasion, in what one state prosecutor has called “the longest and the most sophisticated tax fraud” in modern French history.
The silver-haired businessman, who denies the charges, faces a potential bail sentence for vastly underdeclaring the value of the estate loft by his father Daniel as well as severe financial penalties: the last time that prosecutors pursued the family, in 2018, they sought a total of €866 million (€750 million) in hack taxes and fines.
The trial, due to conclude on October 4, has already provided rare insight into both the opaque workings of the art world and the saga of a Franco-American family who have grown fabulously wealthy from it since Guys great-grandfather Nathan, a. Jewish tailor from Alsace, first began buying and selling paintings in the 1870s.
The origins of the case lie in a civil action begun almost two decades ago by Daniel’s late widow, Sylvia, a Ukrainian-born former catwalk model who claimed to have been tricked out of her rightful inheritance by her stepsons, Guy and his elder brother, Alec. According to her lawyer, Claude Dumont Beghi, for whom the case has become a personal crusade, her treatment reflects a deep-rooted misogyny in the family.
“This is all about four generations of art dealers who have lived in secrecy and organised their assets ire such a way that they never pay taxes,” Dumont Beghi told me last week in her elegant Paris office, “They had control over everything. It’s an empire that is run by men, and women have always been excluded.”
"Guy Wildenstein’s family has collected works by Monet and Caravaggio over more than a century."
Sylvia died in 2010 but the lawyer claims a guilty verdict would provide posthumous vindication of her client, who became her close friend.
Dumont Beghi’s involvement began when Sylvia, then aged about 70, approached her in 2003, two years after she was widowed.
Married life had been good for her. There were lavish homes in France and America, a ranch in Kenya, and a massive compound in the Virgin Islands, as well as a private plane to get between them.
The Wildensteins also had impeccable social connections: Daniel and Sylvia were guests at the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. Guy used to play polo with the future King, who is the godfather of his son, David.
Daniel’s second wife, had left financial matters to her husband and was therefore surprised when her stepsons told her shortly after Daniel’s funeral that he had died with enormous debts. They warned her that she faced a catastrophe if she took her inheritance; she meekly signed papers renouncing her claim.
Guy and Alec promised to pay her €30,000 a month out of their own packets, but Sylvia’s world soon began to fall apart: the movers came to her home and removed a favourite painting by Pierre Bonnard, a French post-Impressionist, from the wall. Much of her furniture was also taken away on the grounds that it belonged to her late husband’s business, now run by Guy and Alec. Then she had to move out. She was also told that the 69 thoroughbred horses were now owned by the brothers’ Irish company.
Dumont Beghi took on the case and found key documents that had purportedly been signed by Daniel during the last ten days 0f his life while he lay in a coma in a Paris hospital. In 2005 she sued Guy and Alec on Sylvia’s behalf, accusing them of hiding the true extent of the family’s wealth. A long legal battle ensued.
“I didn’t like the way the family treated my client as an imbecile and me as an idiot, as little women,” Dumont Beghi said. “They could not imagine where it would all lead.”
The lawyer criss-crossed the world, piecing together details of the family’s artworks, which included masterpieces by Caravaggio, Picasso, Monet and Rembrandt. Many were hidden from view in vast tax-exempt free ports or even in nuclear bunkers; many more were hanging in some of the world’s best-known galleries and museums, identified only as being from a “private collection”.
The dispute was still unresolved when Sylvia died of cancer at 77. Dumont Beghi handed over her findings to the French tax authorities and wrote a book about her struggle, Guy responded in 2016 by suing her for defamation but withdrew his complaint in December 2021. It was the Wildensteins’ extensive use of trusts to protect their wealth from death and divorce that turned what was a private dispute into a probe by French tax authorities. To Dumont Beghi, the key issue is who actually controls them: if it is the family, then the assets should be considered part of their personal wealth and subject to inheritance tax — hence the potential liability for Daniel’s heirs.
Guy was acquitted in 2017; the lead judge spoke of a “clear intention” by the family to hide its wealth but admitted it was a legal grey area. He was acquitted again in 2018. Two years ago, however, the Court of Cassation, France’s highest civil and criminal court, claimed the farts had been. “disregarded” and ordered him to return to court, alongside seven other defendants, who were also all previously acquitted.
Alec died in 2008, but the seven include his son, Alec Jr, and Russian-born widow Liouba Stoupakova, 50. Embroiled in a separate financial battle with the Wildensteins, Stoupakova reportedly provided Dumont Beghi with key documents about the family’s hidden network of offshore trusts that ultimately helped the French tax authorities’ build their case against them.
Alec is also survived by his first wife, Jocelyn Wildenstein, 83, a Swiss-born socialite whose excessive use of cosmetic surgery led the tabloids to call her “cat woman” or “the bride of Wildenstein”. She, too, is unhappy with her treatment by the family despite being awarded a $2.5 billion divorce settlement.
Thanks to such a cast of warring wealthy characters, the long-running saga bas been dubbed by the French media as “Dallas sur Seine”.
‘l’he Wildensteins have rejected claims that Sylvia was treated unfairly. A representative for Guy told The New York Times that she had been awarded €15 based on the value of Daniel’s French estate, but that Dumont Beghi had continued to litigate, making “numerous, unsubstantiated allegations” that were rejected in court.
Dumont Beghi is hoping for vindication.”I have respected my clients memory,” she said. “You cannot imagine what we have gone through. It has been a rnortifying case.”
Source: The Sunday Times
Auteur: Peter Conradi
Photo: Le joueur de luth, Caravaggio – Domaine public