Guy Wildenstein, the scion of the famous art-dealing family who has run the renowned Old Master and Impressionist gallery Wildenstein & Company since 2008, is now under investigation in Paris following accusations that he has concealed much of his inherited fortune from both tax authorities and other heirs. The inquiry was sparked when Sylvia Roth, the widow of the gallerist's father, Daniel Wildenstein, filed a criminal complaint against her stepson claiming that he has hidden the patrimony — said to include more than a thousand paintings by Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Watteau, Fragonard, Courbet, Bonnard, Picasso, and others — in trusts held in offshore tax havens.
Founded in Paris in 1852, Wildenstein & Company — which between 1993 and this year operated in conjunction with the Pace Gallery as PaceWildenstein, with the galleries splitting in April — has specialized in historical French and European art, either selling or being involved in the sale of countless masterpieces to museums. When Daniel Wildenstein died in 2001, his estate was officially declared to be worth $60 million, although it is generally believed to be worth $4-5.5 billion, according to a report in the French newspaper Libération.
Claude Dumont-Beghi, Roth's attorney, has told reporters that her client sent ten letters over the years to the France finance ministry, personally urging former minister Eric Woerth to investigate the trusts for tax evasion and illegal concealment of portions of the estate from other heirs. According to Dumont-Beghi, Guy Wildenstein is one of the most generous donors to President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, and Libération confirms that the 65-year-old dealer belongs to the "Premier Cercle" of UMP's donors. Sarkozy awarded Wildenstein the Légion d'Honneur last year.
After previously filing suit, Roth was obliged by the Paris court of appeals in June to pay €175,000 ($244,000) in damages to Wildenstein and his brother Alec's widow. The current investigation is being carried out by the Brigade de la Répression de la Délinquance Economique, an anti-fraud squad that is part of the French judicial police.
The case, with its trappings of possible political intrigue and vast sums of money involved, recalls another lawsuit that has roiled the French art world this year — the trial of photographer and playboy François-Marie Banier, who has been accused of bilking an elderly billionaire out of her fortune, and whose case has also drawn former finance minister (and now labor minister) Woerth into an ethics-probing spotlight.