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Art Dealer Guy Wildenstein Faces New Charges of Hiding Billions Across the Globe

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Artinfo 13 October 2011
By Kate Deimling

The assets of the storied Wildenstein family of art dealers are vast, including 19th-century paintings, a private island in the Virgin Islands, and a ranch in Kenya where the movie "Out of Africa" was filmed. Now the French budget ministry has demanded an investigation into the family's dealings, and scion Guy Wildenstein stands accused of hiding his true wealth from the French government.

The state's intervention is only the latest development in the legal drama swirling around New York-based megadealer. The heir to the storied Wildenstein and Company gallery, which was founded in Paris in the 19th century and now has branches in New York, London, and Tokyo, was already accused of fraud by his stepmother, Sylvia Roth, for allegedly concealing the majority of his father's fortune in offshore trusts in places including Ireland, the island of Guernsey, and the Cayman Islands when administering his estate. Roth died in November 2010, but her lawyer, Claude Dumont-Beghi, has pursued the case in accordance with her client's dying wishes.

According to French news magazine Le Point, Wildenstein is suspected of having declared "only a minuscule portion" of his father's estate, which Le Nouvel Observateur estimates at €4 billion ($5.5 billion). A preliminary investigation began last week into charges of breach of trust and money laundering. Judge Guillaume Daief is now in charge of both Roth's suit against Wildenstein and the government's case, and the two investigations have been combined. Le Point also reports that the police raided the office of a tax lawyer who is suspected of having helped Wildenstein cover up large sums of money brought back into France from offshore trusts.

The state's slow response to the accusations of tax fraud has raised suspicions of cronyism and preferential treatment within the government of Nicolas Sarkozy. Wildenstein was a generous contributor to Sarkozy's election campaign, becoming a member of the "premier cercle" of donors established by the politician as well as receiving the elite distinction of Commander of the Legion of Honor, which was conferred by Sarkozy personally in 2009. Guy Wildenstein's father, Daniel Wildenstein, died in 2001, and starting in 2009 Roth's lawyer informed the government multiple times of his widow's suspicions of tax fraud.

Even now that the investigation has been formally launched, suspicions remain that the government will not vigorously pursue the case. When current budget minister Valérie Pécresse was questioned about it by the National Assembly last week, she refused to discuss the Wildenstein tax burden. "Just as a family doctor does not have the right to reveal information about a patient, a budget minister does not have the right to reveal tax information about the situation of one of our countrymen," Pécresse said, according to Le Nouvel Observateur.

Earlier this year, Wildenstein was also charged with possession of stolen goods and breach of trust in a separate case which is still ongoing. While investigating Roth's lawsuit, police found 30 artworks in the Wildenstein Institute by artists including Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, and Rembrandt Bugatti that had disappeared from the estates of noted collectors with whom Daniel Wildenstein was associated.

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