France - Economy

Multi-million euro fraud case facing French art dynasty in court

Guy Wildenstein, on 4 January, 2016
Guy Wildenstein, on 4 January, 2016 Alain Jocard / AFP

The tax fraud trial of heirs to the Wildenstein art-dealing dynasty resumed in court on Thursday. The high-profile case alleges some members of the billionaire family hid hundreds of millions of euros in inheritance money.


The Paris trial resumed with a discussion on possible further postponement. After touring the defendants, including Guy Wildenstein, principal heir of the clan and a supporter of the former French right-wing party UMP (now Republicans), the defense launched into a technical discussion, arguing that key questions of constitutionality have not yet been clarified in order for the trial to proceed.

The saga behind the aggravated money laundering and tax fraud charges facing some members of the Wildenstein family plays out like a novel.

French art collector Daniel Wildenstein died in Paris in 2001 a very rich man. The 84 year old had inherited a fortune from his grandfather, Nathan Wildenstein, who himself was a successful art dealer and shrewd businessman. Daniel Wildenstein, the third member of the family to preside over Wildenstein & Co, helped to turn that company into one of the most influential art dealerships of the 20th century. In addition, Daniel Wildenstein gained a reputation as a historian and a leading breeder of thoroughbred horses, as well as a major figure in European horse racing.

Daniel Wildenstein had two sons, Guy and Alec, with his first wife. Guy Wildenstein assumed responsibility for the art dealership, whereas Alec Wildenstein took over control of the family's horse racing and breeding operations.

After the death of family patriarch Daniel Wildenstein, both sons became embroiled with in a protracted legal dispute with Sylvia Wildendstein, Daniel Wildenstein's second wife.

In 2005, Paris' Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Sylvia Wildenstein, saying she was entitled to half of her late husband's estate. At the time, the Wildenstein sons declared an inheritance of 44 million euros, which their stepmother said was grossly undervalued.

Alec Wildenstein died in 2008. Two years later, Sylvia Wildenstein pursued a criminal case, alleging that French government ministers connected to her stepson Guy Wildenstein ignored his alleged tax evasion owing to his involvement with the then-ruling political party, UMP.

The plot thickened in 2011 when French authorities charged Guy Wildenstein with concealing art that had been reported missing or stolen. At the time police then seized dozens of artwork, including sketches by Edgar Degas.

The current case dates back to 2013, when French tax authorities discovered assets hidden in various property trusts in the Bahamas and the the small British island of Guernsey. Among these, they found race horses, 19 paintings by Bonnard, Fragonard's works, Courbet and Picasso. The total of all assets was estimated to be worth 472 million euros.

In 2015 authorities discovered more family-owned paintings worth almost a billion euros.

The Wildenstein trial, which began at the start of 2016, was promptly pushed back over constitutionality questions.

If convicted, the defendants face up to ten years in prison.

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