PARIS: A court has directed that part of one of the largest private inventories of art in the world be liquidated within a matter of weeks to settle an inheritance battle that has split the Wildenstein family.
Unless the sons of the late art dealer Daniel Wildenstein, Alec and Guy, reach a settlement with Daniel's widow, Sylvia Wildenstein, a significant collection of paintings and drawings will be sold at auction in early July, Sylvia Wildenstein said in an interview.
The family's real estate holdings in New York and Paris and a string of thoroughbred racehorses and breeding stock are also under court order to be sold and the proceeds divided among the heirs. Under French inheritance law, Mrs. Wildenstein would get at least 50 percent of the proceeds.
In its four generations of art dealing, the Wildenstein family has amassed a collection of Old Masters and Impressionists that includes works by Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Rembrandt, Rubens, El Greco, da Vinci, Picasso, Manet, Fragonard and Monet.
The family has rarely disclosed details of its holdings, but court documents made public during the divorce proceedings of Alec Wildenstein in 1999 estimated the value of the family collection at up to Â€8 billion, or $10billion.
Daniel Wildenstein died in Paris in 2001 at the age of 84. According to the decision by the Cour d'Appel in Paris, his sons persuaded Sylvia, now 71, to sign away her inheritance in the days after his death by telling her that she would face huge tax bills and a possible criminal investigation. But according to the court decision, Wildenstein had made provisions for any tax liability.
Mrs. Wildenstein, who had been married to Daniel for 23 years but was never involved in the family business, said in the interview that she signed the document without hiring a lawyer because she had always gotten along well with her stepsons and had no reason to doubt their intentions.
But within months of her husband's death, she said that the brothers cut back the monthly cash allowance that she had received when her husband was alive.
Within a year, the brothers sold the couple's apartment on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, and she said she was told to move into another family apartment near the Bois du Boulogne. The brothers soon cut off paying most of their stepmother's expenses, including the salaries of the household staff, she said.
Mrs. Wildenstein said that she began to realize that she was being slowly shoved away from the family and its fortune. When the brothers transferred ownership of her four racehorses to Ecurie Wildenstein, their own racing operation, she hired a lawyer. Within a week, the horses were returned, but she said she decided to continue the fight for the part of her inheritance she felt she was being cheated out of.
"I never thought it would go this far, but what could I do? They had me by the throat," Mrs. Wildenstein said of Alec and Guy.
Alec Wildenstein's secretary in Paris, who did not wish to be named, said that he would not comment for this article. Guy Wildenstein, in New York, did not return a telephone call seekingcomment.
The brothers' attorney, Mario Stasi, said that the case was a private affair, and he criticized the decision of Sylvia Wildenstein to speak to the press in order to put pressure on the brothers to resolve the case. He said his clients disagreed with the ruling and would petition France's highest court to review the decision.
In the meantime the earlier order must be carried out whether or not the higher court agrees to hear the case.
"My clients will not speak further on what is a family matter," Stasi said.
On April 14, the Cour d'Appel voided the document that Mrs. Wildenstein signed renouncing her inheritance and ordered that all property acquired during the couple's marriage be sold and the proceeds divided, guaranteeing her at least half. A deadline of Dec. 31, 2006, was set to wrap up the sales.
Mrs. Wildenstein said that much of the bloodstock operation was already seized and being prepared for sale. She estimated that this consisted of roughly 170 thoroughbreds worth about Â€150 million.
She would not disclose which paintings were earmarked for sale, but she did say they would be from Daniel Wildenstein's private collection, and not those held by the Wildenstein businesses. She suggested that the liquidation might end with the sale of roughly a quarter of the family art holdings.
The decision by the Cour d'Appel said that before his death, Daniel had placed two paintings, a Fragonard and a Boucher, with the investment bank Lazard Frères to cover his estate's tax liabilities.
Wildenstein collection has been the subject of speculation in the art world for decades. The family "is famous for being a prime supplier to museums and collectors, but also for their great mystery," said John Walsh, director emeritus of the J.Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles.
"They have been able to salt away a great trove of Old Masters paintings, and the art community only knows about a portion of them, by way of exhibitions and offers to collectors," he said. "It is an Aladdin's Cave, and what is actually in there, no one knows. Everyone will be intensely interested in what might come out in a sale. How important the material is, and whether this is cream or milk, is hard to say."
In its April 14 ruling, the Paris appeals court ordered the Wildenstein brothers to pay Â€15 million, immediately to Mrs. Wildenstein as partial payment on what she is entitled to from the estate. The widow said that had not yet been paid, and that she was taking out loans to cover her legal expenses.
She said that she now lived on a stipend that the brothers continue to pay, because they had agreed to a minimum amount in the document she signed renouncing her inheritance. She would not give the amount of the stipend.
In the documents released during Alec Wildenstein's divorce from Jocelyn Wildenstein in New York in 1999, he said that he was an unpaid assistant to his father, and therefore could not afford to pay alimony to her.
But the Paris decision said that the brothers had immediate access to at least Â€43 million worth of paintings that could be sold to pay their debts.
In the Paris court document, Sylvia Wildenstein's lawyer, Claude Dumont-Beghi, accuses Alec and Guy of taking advantage of her vulnerability after the death of her husband and asked the court to declare that there was fraud in the handling of the inheritance. The ruling mentions documents allegedly signed by Daniel Wildenstein while he was in a coma before his death that transferred ownership 69 racehorses to a partnership consisting of Alec, Guy and their father.