Wildenstein Vault Holds Key to Feud Over Missing Painting

Bloomberg 13 March 2012
By Heather Smith

A new exhibition of Impressionist Berthe Morisot’s work is missing a piece of art: a painting that’s ignited a feud between two of the art world’s most prominent families.

“The Cottage in Normandy,” estimated at 800,000 euros ($1 million), isn’t in the show, which opened last week at the Marmottan Monet museum in Paris. The painting is instead across the Seine in the custody of police, who seized it last year in a vault owned by the Wildenstein art-dealing family.

“It’s extraordinary, it hadn’t changed from the moment when it was at my grandmother’s home, and then at my uncle and aunt’s,” said Morisot’s great-grandson, Yves Rouart, recalling when he saw the painting at the police station. The recovery renewed his hopes of finding four other works by Edouard Manet, his great-great uncle, and Jean-Baptiste Corot, Morisot’s teacher.

As they built their empire over five generations, the Wildensteins did more than buy and sell art. They befriended collectors and stored their art, making it difficult for heirs to track works down after the owners died. Close to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Guy Wildenstein became embroiled in a dispute over his father’s estate, leading the police to the Wildenstein Institute’s vault: It contained 30 missing works, including bronze sculptures by Rembrandt Bugatti and a pastel by Eugene Delacroix.

“What gall to take such well-known paintings, but really, it’s the reputation of the family to keep things for generations,” Rouart said.

Held for Questioning

Wildenstein, who has dual French and American citizenship, was held for questioning for 36 hours in July, brought before the judge leading the investigation and charged with receiving goods through an abuse of trust. Wildenstein told the police he didn’t have a key to the vault, according to a transcript of the questioning. He was released without any restrictions.

He denied the accusations, and “said he didn’t know this painting was in one of the vaults at the Institute,” said his lawyer, Herve Temime. “He won’t oppose this painting’s return” to whomever the courts eventually decide it belongs to.

Wildenstein, 66, is one of the leading donors of Sarkozy’s political party. The French president called him “a friend” in a speech in 2007 in Washington, and awarded him the Legion d’Honneur, one of the country’s highest honors, in 2009. The investigation may be awkward for Sarkozy, who is campaigning for his re-election, said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

The probe into someone with such close ties to his party is “embarrassing, obviously,” Dubois said. It shows Sarkozy as “the president, the friend of the rich.”

Sarkozy’s press office didn’t respond to requests for comments.

Family Fortune

Police found the missing art thanks to a tip from Wildenstein’s step-mother Sylvia, who fought him and his brother Alec for years in courts for her share of the family fortune. She claimed they cheated her of her inheritance after their father, her husband Daniel, died in 2001. Just before her death in November 2010, she urged the police to search the Wildenstein Institute’s vaults to help gauge the family’s net worth, said her lawyer, Claude Dumont-Beghi.

Nathan Wildenstein, Guy’s great-grandfather, entered the art world in the 1870s in Paris, when he was working as a tailor and a client asked for help to sell some paintings, according to a family history written by Daniel.

Wildenstein & Co., founded in 1875, gained renown for selling Old Masters. In 1905, Nathan opened a gallery at 57, rue La Boetie, where the police found the Morisot and 29 works claimed as missing from the estate of Julie Goujon-Reinach, according to Alexandre Bronstein, one of her heirs.

Rothschilds, Mellon

Nathan’s son, Georges, embraced the Impressionist movement and had close relationships with collectors including the Rouarts, the Rothschilds and Andrew Mellon. Georges fled the Nazis with his family in 1940 and moved the company’s headquarters to New York. Daniel took over the business from his father, who died in 1963.

Sylvia Wildenstein claimed Guy and Alec tricked her into signing away her rights to her husband’s estate two weeks after his funeral by telling her the taxes would bankrupt her, according to court documents.

In 2005, the Paris appeals court voided that agreement and ordered a full inventory of the family’s properties, ranging from homes in New York and France to the 75,000-acre Kenyan ranch where “Out of Africa” was filmed, trusts, race horses and art. Dumont-Beghi, her lawyer, said the family may be worth from $5 billion to $10 billion, depending on the content of trusts around the world and the artworks.

Tax-Fraud Complaint

Urged by Dumont-Beghi, who has pursued her late client’s case as a creditor, the French state filed a tax-fraud complaint claiming the Wildensteins had undeclared assets, Budget Minister Valerie Pecresse told the National Assembly Oct. 5.

Temime, Guy Wildenstein’s lawyer, said Wildenstein and the tax authorities are negotiating a resolution to the tax dispute.

He “contests entirely any type of violation of tax law,” Temime said.

The 71-year-old Rouart, who collaborated with the Marmottan Monet museum on the Morisot exhibition of 150 works, said he just wants to find the four paintings he says are missing: The three Manet and the Corot are valued at about 45 million euros total, he estimates. Rouart saw the works growing up in his grandmother’s home, where her mother, Morisot, had lived and worked, and again at the home of his uncle, Denis, and wife, Annie.

Rouart’s aunt and uncle divided their estate, leaving the art that decorated their apartment walls to their nephew, and the apartment itself and art stored elsewhere to the Academie des Beaux-Arts for the Marmottan museum. Family friends Daniel Wildenstein and Swiss art expert, Francois Daulte, acted as executors.

Portrait by Degas

Rouart said he never questioned their trustworthiness until he went to his aunt’s apartment after she died in 1993 and found it empty except for a few minor works. When he read the inventory, he determined about 30 works were missing from the estate and filed a criminal complaint to initiate an investigation, he said.

After Daulte died in Switzerland in 1998, his children’s lawyer contacted Rouart, saying they’d discovered some works he was looking for in their father’s belongings. The 24 works included two portraits of Manet by Edgar Degas, a Paul Gauguin, a Corot and 10 Morisot. Rouart divided the works with the Academie des Beaux-Arts and signed an accord saying should five works still missing be found, they would also go to the Academie.

Guy Wildenstein has petitioned to have Rouart removed as a claimant, saying he gave up his right to the works -- and to pursue a criminal case against him -- with that accord.

Rouart has in turn asked the Paris commercial court to void the contract. He said he is claiming only the Morisot and Manet’s “Singer at a Café-Concert.”

Extraordinary Life

For Rouart, finding the missing art is a way to preserve the legacy of his great-grandmother, the first woman to join the Impressionist movement. After her training under Corot, Morisot was invited by Degas to join the budding Impressionist group, where she painted with Claude Monett and Auguste Renoir. She was a longtime friend of Manet and married his brother, Eugene. Their daughter, Julie Manet, married the son of painter- collector Henri Rouart.

The Wildensteins were intimately connected with the Rouart family, Rouart said. Georges Wildenstein worked with Julie Manet-Rouart on the catalogue raisonne, or decisive listing, of Morisot’s works, and Denis Rouart worked with Daniel on the Manet catalogue raisonne. Daulte edited the books.

Safe Keeping

The family members often left works for safe keeping with Wildensteins & Co. when they traveled or ran out of wall-space, and entrusted the company with transport when works were loaned out for exhibitions.

Wildenstein and Daulte “took great care of them,” Rouart said. “When my uncle was ailing, Daniel loaned them his plane and car to take them to Switzerland. And so that’s why they chose them as executors.”

While he awaits the decision about whether he or the Academie will get the Morisot painting, Rouart said he has had “excellent” relations with the Marmottan Monet museum, putting together the Morisot exhibit. He’s also working on a show of works by his great-grandfather, Henri Rouart, scheduled for September.

“My grandmother and grandfather made donations to national museums, they gave a lovely work by Berthe Morisot to each of the regional museums so she would be represented,” Rouart said. “That’s why it’s difficult. I have a moral right to see that these works, which are part of France's cultural legacy, are recovered.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Heather Smith in Paris at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at
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