For the third time, French authorities are taking aim at legacy art dealer and collector Guy Wildenstein, who for years has been accused of hiding a trove of masterworks thought to be in his family’s collection through tax fraud and money laundering, according to the New York Times.
In 2017 Wildenstein was acquitted of tax fraud and money laundering charges in France. Those charges stemmed from allegations that Wildenstein had hidden a fortune in art that he inherited from his father, who passed away in 2001, in order to avoid paying hundreds of millions in taxes.
Since the 1870s, the Wildenstein family has collected and sold works by Old Masters like Caravaggio and Fragonard, and has for years been rumored to have one of the world’s most expansive art collections.
In 2017 Wildenstein was cleared on charges of laundering money though a web of foreign trusts and shell companies, a ruling that was overturned by a French appeals court in 2021.
The family had been able to keep their holdings secret for generations, until a 2011 law declared that French citizens had to disclose assets held in foreign trusts. Additional light was shed on their dealings by a slew of lawsuits “filed by women in the family who were cut off from its vast fortune during messy divorces and inheritance squabbles,” according to The New York Times.
Prosecutors say the Wildenstein family has orchestrated “the longest and most sophisticated tax fraud” in the history of modern France, in large part because their collection is scattered across multiple countries, shell corporations, and out-of-the-box storage facilities including a nuclear bunker in the Catskill Mountains, a former fire station in New York, and sites in the Bahamas and the Channel Islands.
According to the prosecution, this method of storing their collection has allowed the family to vastly underestimate their wealth.
The original charges, which were brought in 2016 and spurred by information given to authorities from Daniel Wildenstein’s widow, and Guy’s stepmother Sylvia, alleged that Wildenstein claimed he inherited only $50 billion following the deaths of his father and brother and failed to disclose $675 billion in assets, “including an enormous wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, racehorses, stables, a New York apartment, dozens of paintings, and a Gulfstream jet,” according to Artforum.
In France, tax fraud comes with a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, multiple fines, and payment of back taxes owed. During the last trial prosecutors asked that Wildenstein pay a fine of $268 million. Also implicated in the fraud are Wildenstein’s nephew, Alec Jr., his estranged sister-in-law, Liouba Stoupakova, and a cohort of Swiss and French legal and financial advisers and foreign trusts, according to the New York Times.