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The Evilest Art Dealers in the World?: A Digest of the Wildenstein Allegations

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Artinfo 21 April 2011

The saga of the Wildenstein art-dealing dynasty is a knotty one, filled with five generations of scandal, intrigue, shocking twists, and odious turns. Now, the New York Times has applied considerable resources to a comprehensive exposé of the controversy-wracked French clan, with writers Doreen Caravajal and Carol Vogel turning a particularly critical eye to Guy Wildenstein, the family's 65-year-old current patriarch who since 2008 has served as president of Wildenstein & Company, the gallery empire with spaces in New York, Tokyo, and Paris

For decades the Wildensteins — whose partnership with the Pace Gallery was dissolved in April 2010 — have discreetly avoided all but the most flattering headlines (see our 2007 interview with Guy on the loveliness of Monet, or don't). But when police searched the Wildenstein Institute in Paris in January and discovered a trove of allegedly Nazi-looted artworks along with other paintings that had mysteriously gone missing during Wildenstein-executed settlements of family estates, things came to a head. As Guy Wildenstein has been summoned to Paris from New York for questioning this week by French antifraud investigators, ARTINFO delves into the New York Times feature to extract the most important facts about the sordid past of the secretive family.


Guy Wildenstein

FIRST CAME THE NAZIS, THEN CAME...  

Guy Wildenstein is embroiled in at least half a dozen lawsuits, some related to the recent raid and others instigated by families who believe that artworks entrusted to Guy, his father, and his grandfather were stolen over the years. Three of the works found in the latest raid — a bronze sculpture by Italian artist Rembrandt Bugatti and two Degas drawings — seem to be from the collection of Julie Reinach, whose art was looted by Nazis in 1941. Reinach's great-great nephew, Alexandre Bronstein, has filed a criminal lawsuit inquiry claiming that Daniel Wildenstein, Guy's father, kept inaccurate inventories of the estate so that it would remain unclear which work was looted by Nazis, and which was looted by the Wildensteins.

SWISS SAFES AND MORISOT

Meanwhile, the Rouart family is locked in a legal battle with the gallerists, with heir Yves Rouart accusing Guy Wildenstein of being complicit in the removal of some 40 paintings by Degas, Manet, Corot, Morisot, and others from the home of Anne-Marie Rouart during the settlement of her estate. Guy and Olivier Daulte were serving as co-executors of the estate when the art went missing, and in 1997, 24 of the lost works turned up in Switzerland — in a safe belonging to Daulte's father. The Rouart heir now believes that Morisot's "The Cottage in Normandy," a $1.1 million painting uncovered in the Wildenstein Institute raid, should be returned to him. The Académie des Beaux-Arts, a cultural society to which Daniel and grandfather Georges Wildenstein were elected members, attests that they too have claims on the Morisot work.

A FAMILY, LIKE THE CORLEONES

"When I was eight, we were asked in class what we would like to do when we grew up," Guy Wildenstein told ARTINFO's Judd Tully this February. "While my friends mentioned they would like to be doctors or firemen, I simply answered that I was going to be an art dealer. My teacher was quite shocked and asked my father, 'How come your son answered 'I will' instead of 'I would like to'?' My father's reply was 'Because he knows that he doesn't have a choice.'" This statement, in the wake of the Times's report, is particularly poignant, for Guy Wildenstein's dubious dealings are intricately tied up with familial drama.

LIKE THE CORLEONES, NOT SO NICE TO THE WIVES

Following the January raid, Guy tried to slough off blame on his father, claiming that at least one of the contentious paintings could have wound up at the Institute due to "an error or oversight under my father's operations." The raid itself, meanwhile, was carried out as part of a money-laundering and tax-evasion investigation, the product of a lawsuit by Guy's stepmother, Sylvia Roth Wildenstein, against her stepson. During the decade before her death last year, Sylvia sought to inherit a larger share of her late husband Daniel's estate — accusing Guy of maintaining ownership titles to expensive art holdings in tax havens like the Bahamas and Geneva. This suit came after a scheme on the part of Guy and his late brother Alec to leave her with nothing was exposed in court: They allegedly told her that their father had died penniless, convincing her to give up her inheritance rights (to avoid severe debt) and promising to support her with a $570,000 annual income. It is in fact estimated that Daniel left behind a fortune valued at anywhere from $61 million to $5.7 billion. Now the widow of Alec is suing also for breach of trust, saying that Guy and Alec's son gave her the same pauper story to make her sign away her inheritance.

THE ALLEGATIONS JUST GET UGLIER

Since their first gallery opened in Paris in 1875, the Wildenstein's have stocked world-class museums and private collections with everything from 18th-century French painting to masterpieces of Velázquez, but not without certain hitches. In the 1960s, for instance, French culture minister André Malraux accused (but never formally charged) Georges Wildenstein of bribing an official for an export permit for a Georges de la Tour painting of shady provenance. Most scandalously,  Hector Feliciano published a book in the '90s accusing Georges Wildenstein of working closely with Nazi art dealer Karl Haberstock, who sold art plundered from the collections of persecuted Jews. (The Wildensteins, it might be pointed out, are themselves Jewish.) In response to such allegations, the Wildensteins unsuccessfully attempted a defamation suit — one that failed in two lower courts on the grounds that, according to the Times, the author had "not acted irresponsibly or negligently by drawing that conclusion from the records, though it said it could not rule on whether Georges Wildenstein had done business with the Nazis."

IS SARKOZY PROTECTING THE FAMILY?

The French press is accusing President Sarkozy of not aggressively pursuing a tax investigation of the family, and suggest the reason is because Guy Wildenstein is a powerful fundraiser for the president's Union for a Popular Movement party, to which he has made hefty donations. The 10-year statute of limitations on Sylvia Roth Wildenstein's tax evasion charges will run out in December. But as Guy Wildenstein's new spokesman in Paris, Matthias Leridon, was quick to remind the Times, his client has only been called to answer questions so far as a witness and not as a suspect.

OMERTA

Leridon told the Times that his client "will not answer by using the media," stating that everyone should "be calm and quiet and wait for the questions coming from the judges, and after he will express himself." In his letter to Le Point following the January raids, Guy Wildenstein maintained a similarly zen-like attitude about the whole thing, saying, "In all serenity I will respond when the moment comes to the competent authorities." And when Judd Tully conducted his interview in February, Wildenstein suavely evaded a question about the lawsuits pending against him, stating, "The merits of the allegations have been deliberated, and various court decisions have vindicated our position."

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