PARIS — Several members of the Wildenstein art-dealing dynasty went on trial in Paris on Monday charged with stashing hundreds of millions of euros in inheritance money out of reach of the French taxman.
Family patriarch Guy Wildenstein, 70, faces up to 10 years in prison for tax fraud and money laundering in a multi-generational inheritance squabble worthy of a soap opera.
The Jewish Franco-American is the heir of three generations of wealthy art dealers and thoroughbred racehorse breeders.
He is accused of hiding more than 550 million euros ($600 million) in family money after the death of his father Daniel in 2001 and brother Alec in 2008.
Alec was famed for his messy divorce from Swiss socialite Jocelyne Perisse, nicknamed “Bride of Wildenstein” for her extreme facial cosmetic surgeries, reportedly to make her look more catlike.
The divorce was the first action by a series of women who felt hard done by the Wildenstein men that forced the family to lift the veil of secrecy over its fortune.
The second wives and widows of Daniel and Alec rose up against the family over their slice of the inheritance, accusing Guy of hiding much of his inherited fortune via a web of opaque trusts in tax havens.
This piqued the interest of French investigators who began probing the case in 2010.
In 2008, the dynasty valued Daniel’s estate at just $61 million after Guy took over as president of the family’s gallery empire, which is based in New York.
That was despite assets including a host of works by Rococo painter Fragonard and post-Impressionist Bonnard and a stable of thoroughbred horses including Ascot Gold Cup winner Westerner.
It also included a vast real estate portfolio, with the jewel in the crown a luxury Kenyan ranch which provided the backdrop for the film “Out of Africa.”
Most of these assets were registered in tax havens.
Guy and Alec Wildenstein together declared just 40.9 million euros for inheritance tax purposes in 2002. To pay the 17.7 million euro bill, they handed over bas-reliefs sculpted for Marie-Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI.
Guy says there was no legal obligation to report trust-held assets on his father’s death.
According to the French investigation, the US tax collection agency will also pursue unpaid taxes for artworks.
Guy is appearing alongside his nephew Alec Jr. and Alec’s widow Liouba Stoupakova for a month-long trial in a saga which has been dubbed “Dallas-upon-Seine.”
A notary, two lawyers and two managers of the secret trusts held in Guernsey and the Bahamas are also in the dock.
In a rare interview three months ago, Guy Wildenstein said he knew little about tax, declaring: “My father never used to talk to me about his business affairs.”
He said he hoped he would not be made into a “scapegoat.”