Artworks worth millions seized from Wildenstein Institute

Daily Telegraph 4 February 2011
By Henry Samuel, Paris

Artworks worth tens of millions of pounds registered as “disappeared” or “stolen” – including some by Degas and Manet – have been seized from a world renowned art institute run by one of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s closest friends.

Guy Wildenstein faces an investigation after the heir of a wealthy private collector claimed the works belonged to him.

Among the 30 pieces seized from the Wildenstein Institute in Paris last month were an oil painting by the impressionist Berthe Morisot called Cottage in Normandy, valued at 800,000 euros (£675,000), and Café Concert Singer by the impressionist Edouard Manet, worth several million pounds.

The paintings are alleged to have belonged to Anne-Marie Rouart, a descendant of Manet. She was a friend of the late Daniel Wildenstein, Guy’s father and a celebrated dealer who amassed the world’s biggest private art collection.

According to a family member, she “entrusted him with her tableaux and gold ingots whenever she went on holiday”. At the time of her death in 1993, she bequeathed her collection to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, whose treasurer was Mr Wildenstein.

Her cousin, Yves Rouart, claims he was supposed to inherit all the works furnishing her flat in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly. But when he went to the apartment, there was no sign of the works he expected to find.

Mr Rouart has filed for charges against “persons unknown” for “concealment of theft”. Guy Wildenstein’s lawyers declined to comment.

Other works seized by police also included bronzes of animals by Rembrandt Bugatti and two sketches by Edgar Degas. These allegedly belonged to Joseph Reinach, a major art collector who had many works expropriated by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Mr Reinach’s heir, Alexandre Bronstein, has filed for charges against persons unknown for “theft and concealment”.

Mr Wildenstein is a co-founder of Mr Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party and is among the President’s so-called “First Circle” — his exclusive club of major donors. Last year, the French president personally awarded “Mon ami Guy” the Legion d’Honneur, one of France’s highest honours.

The Wildensteins own hundreds of masterpieces, but their identity has been the subject of a long legal battle. Guy Wildenstein is under investigation over allegations by his stepmother, Sylvia, who died two months ago, that they failed to declare the true extent of their estate.

One of the works in dispute is The Lute Player, a £69 million painting by Caravaggio, sitting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York under the title “from a private collection”
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