New York-based billionaire art dealer Guy Wildenstein, a supporter and friend of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, has been charged with possession of stolen goods and breach of trust in relation to the 30 stolen or otherwise missing artworks that were discovered in the Wildenstein Institute's Paris storeroom. Founded in Paris in 1875, Wildenstein and Company currently has offices in New York, London, and Tokyo, but the seriousness of the accusations and their scope may well put the influential firm's very existence in jeopardy.
With the legal drama having brewed for some time now, Wildenstein's lawyer, Hervé Témime, told AFP, "I am excited about this situation, which will allow Guy Wildenstein to defend himself and I have no doubt about the outcome of these proceedings." As ARTINFO previously reported, the legal saga began when Guy Wildenstein's stepmother, Sylvia Roth, accused him of having concealed the true value of the estate of his father, dealer Daniel Wildenstein, in order to cheat her out of most of her inheritance and also to evade taxes. She accused Guy and his brother Alec (now deceased) of hiding wealth in offshore trusts, which functioned as tax havens. Roth died in November, but her lawyer continued to pursue the case according to her instructions.
While investigating the Roth lawsuit, a French anti-fraud unit raided a storeroom at the nonprofit Wildenstein Institute in January and discovered approximately 30 works that had disappeared or been stolen over the years, leading to the current charges against Wildenstein. Among the discoveries was Berthe Morisot's "Cottage in Normandy," estimated at $1.1 million, which had mysteriously vanished from the estate of Anne-Marie Rouart, a descendant of Edouard Manet and friend of Daniel Wildenstein. Guy Wildenstein was one of the executors of her estate.
Wildenstein previously told the magazine Le Point, which broke the story, that the Morisot painting's presence in the institute was due to "a mistake or an oversight" on the part of his late father. He said that several works from Anne-Marie Rouart's collection had been stored there and not claimed by the family. Other items found in the raid included sketches and drawings by Edgar Degas and bronze sculptures by Rembrandt Bugatti that are believed to have been looted by the Nazis from the heirs of French politician Joseph Reinach.
The affair has become an embarrassment for Sarkozy's UMP party. Wildenstein is the UMP representative for the Assemblée des Français de l'Etranger, the political organization of French citizens living abroad, and Sarkozy awarded him the Légion d'Honneur in 2009. Some media outlets accused the government of ignoring the question of Wildenstein's alleged tax evasion because of his large donations to the party.