In fewer than five minutes in a Paris appeals courtroom on Friday, June 29, the surviving members of the art-dealing Wildenstein clan were cleared, for a second time, of defrauding French tax authorities out of millions of euros.
The presiding judge in Paris’s court of appeals upheld the decision reached after a previous trial in January 2017, acquitting the three heirs of the Wildenstein fortune—Guy Wildenstein, his nephew Alec Jr., and his former sister-in-law, Liouba Stoupakova—of money laundering and defrauding the French state out of hundreds of millions in inheritance tax.
The Wildensteins did not appear in court on Friday. Two lawyers, a notary, and two trust fund managers were also acquitted of facilitating tax evasion. Guy Wildenstein’s lawyer, Hervé Témime, called the verdict “the only possible decision” that could have been made in the face of a “criminal fiction” alleged by the public prosecutor, according to the French paper Le Parisien. artnet News reached out to Témime for comment but did not hear back by press time.
The attorneys general were seeking a four-year prison sentence and a €250 million (or $265 million) fine from the 72-year-old Guy Wildenstein, the heir and now patriarch of a dynasty whose art businesses have spanned the globe and today include the Wildenstein & Company gallery on New York’s Upper East Side. The appeal failed on Friday as the court found that “the crime of tax fraud is outside the statute of limitations,” upholding the judgment of the first trial.
Back in January of last year, a court pursued evidence of a “clear attempt” by Wildenstein and the seven co-defendants to conceal art and property assets worth hundreds of millions of euros from tax authorities, and also to launder money through offshore trusts following the deaths of Guy Wildenstein’s father Daniel Wildenstein in 2001 and his oldest son Alec Wildenstein in 2008.
The trial collapsed after the presiding judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to say that Wildenstein intentionally committed tax fraud, citing weaknesses in the investigation and faults in French tax fraud legislation. (The law requiring the declaration of these assets was only introduced in 2011, a decade after the death of Daniel Wildenstein, and therefore could not be applied to inheritance resulting from his death or to assets transferred at the later death of Alec Wildenstein.)
Guy Wildenstein is still facing a separate civil lawsuit in which French authorities claim he owes about €500 million (or $430 million) in taxes. The combined court proceedings have been called the biggest tax-evasion case in recent French history. In the course of the investigation, police seized dozens of artworks from a Paris vault maintained by the Wildensteins that authorities said had been stolen or had gone missing from other collections, some potentially through Nazi expropriations. In his defense, Guy Wildenstein said he was unaware of the contents of the family vault.
The public prosecutor’s office is expected to further appeal the decision. Contacted by artnet News, the court of appeals said it plans to release a statement about the verdict this afternoon.
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