The case, which goes to trial in Paris this week, reflects the family's eagerness to clear its name and silence its critics. But it involves a measure of risk: since the court will judge the veracity of postwar Allied reports that the head of the family at the time did business with Nazi art dealers, in a sense it is the Wildensteins, as much as the American writer, Hector Feliciano, who will be in the dock.
The case illustrates how new interest in the fate of looted wartime art collections is suddenly spotlighting murky events that took place in occupied Europe more than half a century ago. But while most disputes revolve around efforts to recover paintings confiscated from wealthy Jews by the Nazis, the Wildenstein case touches on far more sensitive questions.
A three-judge lower court will hear brief statements from lawyers for the parties on Wednesday before adjourning to study arguments and supporting documents already filed with the court. (Copies of the main arguments were obtained from both the Wildensteins and Mr. Feliciano.) A ruling is expected around mid-June. The verdict can then be appealed to the Court of Appeal and to France's Supreme Court.
In his book, published in France in 1995 as ''Le Musee Disparu'' and in the United States in 1997 as ''The Hidden Museum,'' Mr. Feliciano dedicates little space to Georges Wildenstein, who ran the family company from 1910 until his death in 1963. Rather, he focuses on the Nazi seizure, and postwar recovery, of important French-Jewish art collections.
But Mr. Feliciano cites documentary evidence that Georges Wildenstein ''seems to have'' organized some deals with Germans during the Occupation; that after the gallery owner escaped to New York in January 1941 his longtime non-Jewish employee Roger Dequoy was his ''secret representative'' during the Occupation, and that Dequoy did a lot of business with Nazi dealers.
The Wildensteins' lawsuit -- brought by Georges's son, Daniel, 81, his grandsons, Alec and Guy, and the New York-based Wildenstein & Company -- denies all the allegations in the book and accuses Mr. Feliciano of displaying negligence and ''serious and flagrant scorn for searching for the truth'' by associating Georges Wildenstein with the ''war crime'' of collaborating with the enemy.
The Wildensteins also maintain they have suffered ''considerable commercial damage'' as a result of Mr. Feliciano's references of Georges Wildenstein, which, they said, cast ''intolerable suspicion over his honorability that translates directly into distrust by clients and particularly by important Jewish American clients.'' They add that some Jewish clients have stopped visiting the Wildenstein gallery on East 64th Street in Manhattan.
In response Mr. Feliciano's lawyer, Antoine Comte, said the writer worked with ''moderation and professionalism'' in analyzing Allied intelligence and Nazi and French documents of the era that fully supported what he wrote. At the same time, Mr. Feliciano has filed a countersuit claiming $180,000 in damages against the Wildensteins for initiating ''an abusive action'' with intent to discredit the author.
Even before the judges analyze the substance of the dispute, however, they must decide whether the lawsuit is valid. The Wildensteins are suing under articles 1382 and 1383 of the Civil Code, which require reparation to be paid for any kind of damage caused by one person to another. Mr. Comte says the relevant legislation is the 1881 Press Law, which contemplates defamation of the dead only when the intent is to harm living heirs or relatives. The Wildensteins have already conceded that Mr. Feliciano had no such intent.
Mr. Comte said that it was odd that the lawsuit was brought in France since the Wildenstein company and Guy Wildenstein are located in the United States and Daniel and Alec Wildenstein live in Switzerland. He added that the Wildensteins probably did so in the belief that a French court would be more sympathetic to the family's wartime situation and less credulous of American intelligence reports implicating Georges Wildenstein. Denying this motive, the Wildensteins noted that Mr. Feliciano's book was published first in France.
Certainly the outcome of the case appears to depend on the credence given by the judges to these intelligence reports and other documents that detail Georges Wildenstein's prewar business dealings with Karl Habertsock, a Berlin-based Nazi art dealer, and his wartime relationship with Dequoy, who managed the Wildensteins' Paris gallery under his own name during the Occupation and who worked again for Wildensteins after the war.
These documents include a special report on the Wildenstein company prepared for the Office of Strategic Services in 1945 that refers to a visit by Haberstock and Dequoy to Georges Wildenstein in Aix-en-Provence in October 1940. The report quotes Haberstock as saying under interrogation after the war that ''Wildenstein was very eager to do business.'' And it adds, ''In Haberstock's presence, Wildenstein gave Dequoy full authority to deal with his collection.''
Another document, a United States Treasury Department report dated Jan. 29, 1942, is based on questioning of Georges Wildenstein. He said that at first he had hoped to purchase some paintings in France through Dequoy, ship them to America and thereby salvage some of his French franc balances in French banks. ''However, with the exception of 17 pictures, he was unsuccessful,'' the report says.
The thrust of the Wildensteins' case is that these and other documents are unreliable. They argue that, while Dequoy may have done business with Nazis, he was acting on his own behalf and not on instructions from Georges Wildenstein. They further charge that Mr. Feliciano ignored ample evidence of Georges Wildenstein's patriotism, including his work for the Resistance cause for which he was honored after the war.
Mr. Feliciano, who has flown to Paris to attend Wednesday's hearing, said he was surprised to have been sued because the Wildensteins are challenging the validity of documents that have been used by historians and journalists for decades. ''It is strange that they should be drawing attention to Georges Wildenstein in this way,'' he said.
A spokeswoman for Daniel Wildenstein said he would not comment on the case until the verdict was announced. But in an interview in April 1998 Guy Wildenstein said that the family had decided to answer its critics. ''We decided not to remain indifferent now,'' he said. ''For me, the honor of the family is at stake.''
A few days after the interview the Wildensteins sued a French weekly, VSD, for defamation. (A judgment in that case is expected on May 25.) And a few weeks later they took Mr. Feliciano to court.
Correction: May 12, 1999, Wednesday An article on Monday about a lawsuit in Paris brought by the Wildenstein family of international art dealers against the American writer Hector Feliciano, for publishing allegations that the family did business with Nazis during World War II, misstated the title of Mr. Feliciano's book. It is ''The Lost Museum,'' not ''The Hidden Museum.''