DSK and the Billionaire Art Dealer Connection: Conspiracy or Coincidence?

Forbes 11 July 2011
By Abigail Esman

Two French men, both Jewish, both powerful, both wealthy, both part of the art elite, both with strong ties to the United States, one a friend of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the other a potential rival – and both in trouble with the law, in America and in France.  It’s enough to wag even the most apathetic of tongues, and it is, especially in Paris, where some claim both cases smack of anti-Semitism and political conspiracy, while others call it a cautionary tale about the arrogance of power.

This past week, while Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, celebrated the near-collapse of the case against him for alleged rape of a chambermaid at New York’s Sofitel hotel, Guy Wildenstein, scion of the Wildenstein art dynasty, was charged with possession of stolen property and fraud. For Wildenstein, the charges are the latest in a series of criminal investigations and lawsuits that have followed him over the past six years, in which numerous works of art have been seized from the family holdings, which some estimate to be worth $4-5 billion, and possibly even more. Both Strauss-Kahn, or DSK, as he is known, and Wildenstein are Jewish.  Both have homes in the USA and Paris.  But where Strauss-Kahn was a strong contender to oppose Sarkozy in the 2012 French Presidential elections, Wildenstein is a close friend of Sarkozy and a founding member of his political party, the UMP.

The Intrigue: Art Power Meets Political Power Meets Billionaire Wealth

But the connections don’t stop there.  DSK’s wife, the American-born journalist Anne Sinclair, is also the granddaughter of legendary Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who – back in the day — worked closely with Wildenstein’s own grandfather, Georges.  (The Wildenstein art dynasty extends back five generations with the founding of  the Wildenstein Gallery in Paris  in the 1870s.) The two galleries – Rosenberg and Wildenstein – were among the world’s most powerful during the early-to-mid 20th-century, and together represented the works of Pablo Picasso.  Sinclair’s art collection, inherited from her mother, is to some extent shrouded in secrecy; and while the contents of the collection are not entirely known, estimates its worth at “tens of millions of euros.” (In truth, it may well be worth significantly more than that, given the number of Picasso works alone – possibly reaching into the billions, or near it.)

Now, here’s where the story gets tricky.  ArtInfo also reports that “Much of Paul Rosenberg’s collection was looted by the Nazis, and, though the family has obtained restitution for several works, it is thought that many more have not been returned to their rightful owners.”  Match this with the fact that, along with the lawsuits and criminal investigations plaguing Wildenstein, some Jewish families allege that the Wildensteins – though Jewish themselves – cooperated with Nazi officials from time to time.  And many of the lawsuits against Guy Wildenstein have been filed by the families and descendants of  French Jews,  who contend that works left in the care of the Wildenstein family for safekeeping during WWII still remain in the Wildenstein vaults.  In January of this year, French police raided the Wildenstein Institute in Paris, seizing various works by Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, and others, which Jewish families  and others claim were stolen (or at least, should have been returned to them, and were not).    Were any of these works once in the Rosenberg collection? Are they part of what should have been Sinclair’s inheritance?

Anne Sinclair’s name has not come up in any of the investigations or lawsuits surrounding the Wildenstein affair. But it is certain that she knows — and is likely friends with –  other wealthy, (Jewish) French  families who are involved, especially the Rouarts — descendants of collector Anne-Marie Rouart — who are leading the investigation. (Writer Jean-Marie Rouart, for instance, a well-known figure in literary and intellectual circles, is also a descendant of the painters Berthe Morisot and Henri Rouart, who exhibited at the Rosenberg gallery). According to the New York Times, Anne-Marie’s nephew and heir, Yves, says that some 40 art works were “removed from the walls during the settlement of her estate.” One of the executors of that estate was Guy Wildenstein.

Consequently, Wildenstein – or any of his allies – might perhaps believe that Sinclair, given both her social and political positions, pushed the matter, encouraging the inquiries into Wildenstein’s financial records (he is also under investigation for tax evasion), his father’s estate (for which he was sued by his late stepmother, Sylvia Roth Wildenstein), and the alleged theft of paintings left in his father’s and grandfather’s care.  (A detailed rundown of the Wildenstein inquiries and legal matters can be found in this New York Times article.)

Conspiracy? Or Non?

Obviously, this is all purely speculative, but given the politics here – one man an ally of Sarkozy, the other a potential threat to his political future  – it’s something I couldn’t help but wonder. Has this entire mess – both the DKS and Wildenstein cases — been the result of a political tit-for-tat?

Or is it all, as some maintain, yet another illustration of the insidious anti-Semitism that pervades French society, one which a friend described as motivated by “people on the far right who do not want to see a Jewish president, who think a Jewish cabal runs politics and cinema and the art world, and are prepared to do anything to bring them down”?

Or none of the above?

As the DSK and Wildenstein stories developed over the past few days – and with the latest charges against Strauss-Kahn brought by French journalist Tristane Banon —  I’ve been Googling a lot.  I’ve been, in fact, Googling obsessively.  I now sit among piles of paper with, in the words of Arlo Guthrie, “circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one” is.

The entire pile offers no real answers, but it does present a pretty fascinating picture.  As for the charges of anti-Semitism, one has to take that with a shake of proverbial salt, especially given the fact that Banon herself is Jewish – or at least, is the daughter of two Jews, one of Iranian origin (her mother) and the other Moroccan (her father).  Then again, her father, with whom she is estranged,  once worked for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.  On the other hand, her mother, Anne Mansouret, registered to run in the 2011 presidential elections against Sarkozy — in DSK’s own party, the Socialists, making them potential political rivals.  She withdrew her name – which she claimed only to have entered as a “symbolic gesture” — on July 1 – just days before her daughter filed her complaint against DSK for attempted rape.


Putting It To Paper

The upshot is the above scrawl of a chart, which I described in an e-mail to a friend pretty much as follows:

So far I’ve got Banon, whose half-sister – the daughter of her godmother –  is married to a (Tunisian-born) member of Sarkozy’s cabinet, and Sarkozy who is friends with Guy Wildenstein, whose family used to be connected to the family of DSK’s current wife, and who  is in court with the Rouarts and Sylvia Wildenstein’s estate, which also sued Sarkozy, who may or may not have had anything to do with the DSK situation in NY and may or may not have anything to do with Banon’s accusations against DSK even if she is half sisters with the wife of a Sarkozy cabinet member and who is also the  daughter of her godmother, who was at one time married to her father – and to DSK.

Seriously.  It’s hard to believe any of this is real.  This is stuff for HBO.   No one, not even Thomas Hardy, could invent anything this intricate.  Stay tuned for the movie, probably coming soon.
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