Having been ordered in 2021 by France’s highest court to face a retrial after being twice acquitted of tax fraud, the members of the Wildenstein family, owners of one of the world’s largest collections of Old Masters, are back in court as of September 18. French American art dealer Guy Wildenstein; his nephew Alec Wildenstein Jr.; and Liouba Stoupakova, estranged widow of Guy’s brother Alec Wildenstein Sr.—collectively referred to in the French press as “les W”—could potentially pay $1 billion in taxes and fines if convicted by the Paris Court of Appeal on charges of money laundering and tax evasion stretching back more than a decade. Also on trial are a notary, a lawyer, and two trust-fund managers.RelatedHELEN FRANKENTHALER FOUNDATION SUED FOR “DESTROYING” PAINTER’S LEGACYBMA CREATES PAID INTERNSHIPS HONORING VALERIE MAYNARD The defendants were first tried on charges of tax fraud in2016, after they claimed that Guy and Alec Sr.’s father, Daniel Wildenstein, left just $50 billion to the pair on his death in 2001; the bereft sons failed to report assets including an enormous wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, racehorses, stables, a New York apartment, dozens of paintings, and a Gulfstream jet. Tipped off by the pair’s widowed stepmother, Sylvia Wildenstein, French investigators determined that Guy and Alec Sr. had secreted assets totaling roughly $675 billion in offshore accounts and in various locations—detailed in theNew York Timesas including a free port in Switzerland, a nuclear bunker and a disused firehouse, both in New York State, and a vault in Paris—in order to avoid paying taxes.
Alec Sr. died in 2008; Sylvia Wildenstein died in 2010. The 2016 trial could have landed Guy, a friend of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, in prison for up to ten years and forced the family to pay the French government $752 million in back taxes. The case fell apart in 2017 owing to insufficient evidence and an inability on the part of the prosecution to prove that the family intentionally committed fraud. The defendants were again exonerated in a 2018 appeal, with the court ruling that the case was beyond the statute of limitations.
Guy has consistently attested that he was told by legal advisers that he did not have to claim artworks that were owned by trusts and not by the family. The current trial seeks to determine whether he and other beneficiaries guided the trusts in failing to report the assets after the death of first Daniel and then Alec. If they are found to have done so, the trustees will be in violation of the rules of irrevocable trusts, which state that they must be independently managed..