The lawyer who helped shake up the notorious art dealer family – several members of which have been on trial since Monday – tells it all in a book.
It could be a Woman’s Revenge, an unusual occurrence in the family. Among the Wildensteins, fortune is passed down from father to son and it is better for wives to stay out of the big money business. They are offered horses, jewelry, sometimes a painting, an apartment or, why not, a plastic surgery operation. As long as they don’t get mixed up. When Sylvia Wildenstein first met Me Claude Dumont-Beghi in 2003, two years after the death of Daniel, her husband, she didn’t expect to see a woman arrive. From the outset, the trend is clear: “I chose you as I choose my thoroughbreds! “as the widow of the wealthy French art dealer later stated.
Until Sylvia’s death in 2010, the two women never leave each other, united in their desire to restore the truth about Daniel Wildenstein’s fortune, this colossal inheritance – composed of multi-million-dollar paintings, sumptuous mansions around the world and racehorses – mysteriously vanished upon the death of the tycoon.
The system of “trusts”
It all began with the sudden death of Daniel Wildenstein in 2001. At the request of her sons-in-law, Alec and Guy, born of the deceased’s first marriage, Sylvia renounces her share of the inheritance. The two brothers tell her that their father has died ruined and threatened by the tax authorities. In fact, he was indeed targeted by a tax adjustment, for income tax from 1996 to 1998, of about 67 million francs. Sylvia does not ask herself any more questions at the time and accepts, in exchange for her renunciation, the use of a 350 square meter apartment in Paris, the staff necessary for its maintenance and a small nest egg. It is when she realizes that her thoroughbreds become the property of an Irish company that she begins to doubt the loyalty of her sons-in-law and she calls upon Me Dumont-Beghi.
The hunt for billions is then launched, against a backdrop of appraisals, counter-assessments, evaluations and revaluations. The legal war that began in 2003 has been going on since Monday before the Paris criminal court, where Guy Wildenstein, 70 years old, is being prosecuted for “tax fraud” and “laundering of tax fraud”. But since 2003, Mr. Dumont-Beghi has been upping the arte by revealing the system of trusts on which the Wildensteins fortune is based. This complex arrangement recalls from the English middle crusaders who would protect their assets and entrust their management to a designated third party. All those who left for the crusades in Europe had good reason to envisage a journey with no return. These English travelers had imagined entrusting their fiefdom, their fortune and even their wife to a third party, a person they could trust. It was up to the latter to return everything to the “pilgrim” on his return.
“Tax evasion is a family tradition”
The Wildensteins placed in trusts, in addition to some of their properties and stables, several hundred works of art of inestimable value. Caravaggio, Cézanne, Degas, Picasso, Van Gogh… The “Sylvia Trust” alone contains no less than nineteen works by Pierre Bonnard, to which Sylvia should have had access. In vain. However, her husband’s wishes were clear, and he had even taken the care to draw up a document in order to specify his intentions: “It is my desire and my will that the present trust be used for the protection of my wife Sylvia during her lifetime. In addition to paying her income, you can encroach on the capital in case of medical or financial emergency. “Upon the death of the settlor, the trustee to whom the property has been entrusted is subject to the succession rules of the place of death. Since Daniel Wildenstein was a French citizen, residing in France and died in Paris, French public order inheritance law must apply. However, when the widow and her lawyer asked the court to take trusts into account in the succession, the response of the Paris Court of Appeal was astonishing to say the least. It was, in fact, dismissed in 2008 on the grounds that “tax evasion of patrimony is a family tradition among the Wildenstein family”.
And, in fact, this is indeed the reality. The lawyer quickly discovered that the 43 million euros declared as inheritance represented barely 1% of the family’s assets! From New York to the Virgin Islands, from Kenya to the Bahamas, via Tokyo, she would try to reconstitute the treasure by tracking down the works in galleries and museums. Often, the paintings belonging to the Wildenstein family were presented under the label “private collection”. Thus, at the National Museum of Tokyo, one of the versions of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell or impressionist works by Corot, Manet, Monet, Sisley and Renoir, a Christ on the Cross by El Greco and Abundantia by Rubens. All these exceptional works seem to have been lent or entrusted to the museum on conditions that have remained confidential. Asked by Paris Match in October 2015 what he knew about these trusts and what they contained, Guy Wildenstein replied: “I only learned of their existence after my father’s death. In 2008, the Court of Appeal declared that the Wildensteins had a family tradition of concealingtheirinheritance… As you can see, I broke with that tradition because I never did. “That will be up to the courts to decide”.
Claude Dumont-Beghi’s Les Milliards cachés des Wildenstein, L’Archipel, 272 pages, 20 euros.
Source: Le Point
Author: Victoria Gairin
Photo: Joel Saget / afp.com