Guy Wildenstein, Art Family Patriarch, Found Guilty in Tax Trial

New York Times 5 March 2024
By Aurelien Breeden

Mr. Wildenstein hid a prized art collection and other assets from French authorities to avoid paying millions in inheritance taxes, a Paris court ruled.

Guy Wildenstein, center, arriving at the Palais de Justice in Paris last year

Guy Wildenstein, the international art dealer, was found guilty in France on Tuesday of massive tax fraud and money laundering, the latest twist after years of legal entanglements that have unraveled the secrecy that once surrounded his powerful family dynasty.

Mr. Wildenstein, 78, the Franco-American patriarch of the family and president of Wildenstein & Co. in New York, was sentenced by the Paris Appeals Court to a four-year prison sentence, with half of it suspended, and the other half to be served under house arrest with an electronic bracelet.

The court also sentenced him to pay a one million euro fine, or about $1.08 million, said that over €3.4 million of his assets would be seized and ordered him to pay all back taxes owed to the French government.

Mr. Wildenstein stood accused of hiding significant chunks of his family’s art collection and other assets in a maze of trusts and shell companies when his father, Daniel, died in 2001, and after his brother, Alec, died in 2008. Seven other defendants, including family members, financial advisers, and trust companies, were found guilty over similar accusations.

Prosecutors had said that Mr. Wildenstein was trying to dodge hundreds of millions of euros in inheritance taxes. At the trial, which was held in the fall, they had requested a slightly more lenient prison sentence for him, but they had also requested a much larger fine of €250 million, or about $270 million. The court declined to impose that fine on procedural grounds.

The Wildensteins, a family of French art dealers spanning five generations, were historically secretive about the exact details of their collection, which has included works by Caravaggio, Fragonard and many other blue-chip artists.

Prosecutors said that the family was responsible for “the longest and most sophisticated tax fraud” in modern French history, by concealing art and other assets under complex foreign trusts and by shielding artworks worth millions of dollars in tax havens. By doing this, prosecutors said, the family grossly underestimated its enormous wealth when the time came to pay inheritance taxes.

The Wildenstein family’s defense was that it did not have to disclose assets to tax authorities if they were technically owned by trusts and not by the family itself.

Some of the Wildenstein trusts did not appear to break the rules, and the statute of limitations had run out on allegations linked to other ones, the court acknowledged. It did not find Mr. Wildenstein guilty of fraud in the handling of his brother’s inheritance.

But the court also said that other trusts had been used to hide assets from tax collectors when Mr. Wildenstein’s father died.

The court ruled that the family had never truly given up ownership of the assets that were placed in those trusts — ranging from masterpiece paintings to high-end real estate and thoroughbred horses — making it responsible for a fraud of near-unprecedented “scope” and “sophistication” and damaging citizens’ trust in the fairness of France’s tax system.

Pascal Cladiere, one of the court’s three judges, said that while Mr. Wildenstein had not set up the trusts himself, he had used them to “deliberately” underestimate his wealth.

Mr. Wildenstein portrayed himself as an art dealer with little knowledge of his family’s financial structure, Mr. Cladiere said, but added, “The evidence shows the opposite.”

“Guy Wildenstein never stopped lying,” Mr. Cladiere said as he read out the verdict.

Mr. Wildenstein had previously been acquitted of the tax fraud and money laundering charges in 2017, an acquittal that was then upheld by a higher court.

At the time, judges had ruled that the family had shown clear intent to conceal its wealth but that its actions were either past the statute of limitations or fell into a legal gray area, before France enacted a law in 2011 that requires foreign trusts to be declared to the authorities.

But in 2021, in a stunning reversal, Mr. Wildenstein’s acquittal was overturned by France’s top appeals court, which ordered the latest trial and asked for clarifications over whether the family had actually relinquished ownership of its assets to the trusts — determining whether or not they had to be declared to tax authorities for inheritance purposes.

Mr. Wildenstein did not attend Tuesday’s court hearing. But he testified in September that for years he was oblivious to the intricacies of trusts, even though his family used them liberally.

“I knew there were trusts,” he told the court. “I had absolutely no idea how they worked.”

He also argued that he spent much of his time outside of France and did not closely follow tax matters there. The Wildenstein family has galleries in New York and Tokyo, as well as a prestigious research institute in Paris.

Asked in September if his father, Daniel, had told him about the trusts before his death, Mr. Wildenstein said that “it might be strange, but he did not tell me anything.”

“We were neither consulted nor informed,” he said.

The Wildenstein family remain a leading authority on old masters and Impressionists and have published definitive catalogs on painters including Monet and Gauguin, which give them all but final say over some authentication questions.

But repeated legal entanglements since the 2000s have gradually shed a harsh light on their business, often involving legal suits filed by women in the family who were cut off from its vast fortune during messy divorces and inheritance squabbles.

The seven other defendants — who had also been previously cleared — were also convicted of their varying degrees of involvement in the tax fraud.

Mr. Wildenstein’s nephew, Alec Jr., 43, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence and fined €37,500, or about $40,800. Mr. Wildenstein’s estranged sister-in-law, Liouba Stoupakova, was found guilty of complicity in money laundering and given a three-month suspended prison sentence.

Several Swiss and French legal and financial advisers, as well as foreign trust companies, were given fines ranging from €5,000 to €187,500. The advisers were handed prison sentences ranging from one to two and a half years.
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