Wildenstein tax evasion and money laundering trial begins

Case could shine spotlight on how some in the art world use trusts and tax havens

After a five-year investigation by French authorities, members of the Wildenstein art-dealing dynasty are due to stand trial in Paris today (4 January) for tax evasion and money laundering. The New York-based dealer Guy Wildenstein, who inherited the business from his father, Daniel Wildenstein, when he died in Paris in 2001, is at the centre of the legal case, which could throw a light on how some in the international art market use foreign trusts and Swiss tax havens to hide assets.

Guy Wildenstein, who is the president of Wildenstein & Company, is facing trial alongside two other family members, financial advisers and offshore private banks. Daniel Wildenstein’s other son, Alec, died in 2008. The French government estimates that the Wildenstein estate could owe at least $600m—including fines and interest—in France alone.

Criminal investigators for the French government claim that almost $250m-worth of art was shipped from New York to Switzerland as Daniel Wildenstein slipped into a coma days before his death, according to the New York Times. It is alleged that the Wildensteins hid the assets to avoid inheritance tax.

In 2008, the family valued the estate at $61m at the time of Daniel Wildenstein’s death. But French investigators claim that, taking into account undeclared assets including paintings worth billions and properties including a Kenyan ranch and the New York gallery, the estate was worth ten times that amount.  

Guy Wildenstein has reportedly said that he was not legally obliged to report assets held in trust in 2001 when his father died. His advisers and the banks involved have also said they have always abided by the law in France and other countries, according to the New York Times.

In an interview with Paris Match in October, Wildenstein said: “My father never used to talk to me about his business affairs. He would not seek my advice to manage his fortune or dispose of his property while living. I knew that he had trusts, but I was never informed of the details. I am not a tax accountant or a financier. All these legal aspects involved him because this was not my forte and he knew it.”

Hervé Temime, the lawyer representing Guy Wildenstein, was not available for comment.