The strange affair of the last bride of Wildenstein

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The plot may sound familiar: a long-running family feud, a multi-billion euro inheritance, an 'abused' widow, and allegations of tax fraud and ministerial connivance. Following hot on the heels of the Bettencourt saga, the battle over the estate of art collector Daniel Wildenstein raises fresh questions about the close relationships that bind France’s wealthiest families with a political elite.

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Two key French ministers accused of ignoring massive tax fraud by a close acquaintance of French President Nicolas Sarkozy may soon be targeted by a judicial investigation into allegations of corruption and cronyism.

Recent developments in the so-called 'Wildenstein affair' are the latest in a long string of financial scandals implicating top members of France's ruling UMP party. Like the Bettencourt affair before it, the Wildenstein affair demonstrates the deep ties that bind France’s leading fortunes to the country’s political elite.

The new scandal has erupted amid a battle over the inheritance left by Daniel Wildenstein, one of the world's most famous art collectors and dealers, who died in 2001 at the age of 84.Wildenstein, who had galleries in Paris, Tokyo and New York, was also the owner of a renowned stud of champion racehorses.

His widow Sylvia has accused her husband’s sons from a previous marriage, Guy and Alec, of conspiring to steal her share of the family fortune, now said to exceed four billion euros. She says the two men hid vast chunks of the estate in a series of trusts domiciled in offshore tax havens, including Guernesey and the Cayman Islands.

Mediapart has learnt that a new criminal suit centring on allegations of massive tax fraud was filed by Sylvia in France on September 20th, 2010. It cites “influence peddling, active and passive corruption, and receiving the proceeds of money laundering”. Importantly, it opens the possibility for the appointment of an independent examining magistrate to investigate alleged wrongdoing at the highest levels of French government.

Guy Wildenstein, the only living direct heir to the Wildenstein fortune (Alec died in 2008), is a member of Nicolas Sarkozy's inner circle. An independent investigation would be highly sensitive for the president and his government, as it would be bound to question the actions of current budget minister François Baroin and his predecessor, Eric Woerth, now labour minister, both of whom appearing to have turned a blind eye to wide-ranging fiscal irregularities.

Until now, no independent magistrate has been appointed to investigate disturbing evidence and testimony emerging from the family feud between L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her daughter Françoise, and which point to influence-peddling, illegal political party funding, tax evasion and money laundering. Following exclusive revelations by Mediapart in June, that affair now implicates both the president and, again, his labour minister Eric Woerth.

In the Wildenstein family feud, the legal confrontation between the duelling heirs - as well as Alec’s children, who inherited his rights after his death - has until now been limited to civil matters, with Sylvia demanding her part of the colossal fortune, but holding off from pressing potential criminal suits against her stepsons.

That changed with the 'criminal complaints against unknown persons' [“plainte contre X”] lodged in September by Sylvia Wildenstein’s high-profile lawyer, Claude Dumont-Beghi.

 

1: Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement).

No reaction from the ministry

Dumont-Beghi has accumulated wide-ranging evidence to back up the suspicion of tax fraud, including an original document (see below) that lists vast riches lodged in a Cayman Island trust, the DeltaTrust, that were left out of the initial inheritance. The catalogue demonstrates the dizzying heights of Wildenstein’s hidden art collection, and includes works by Bonnard, Courbet, Fragonard, and Picasso.

 

To enlarge the document, click on “Fullscreen”

 

Dumont-Beghi presented the case for the presumption of fraud – carried out to the detriment of both her client and the French state - in a series of letters to then-budget minister Woerth over the period from June 12th - September 7th, 2009. A new letter (see below) containing similar allegations was then forwarded to current budget minister François Baroin last July. Neither Woerth nor Baroin took any action, despite the detailed and explicit charges in Dumont-Beghi’s correspondence.

To enlarge the document, click on “Fullscreen”

Cosy relations

The lack of ministerial interest raises important questions, given that Guy Wildenstein is a force to be reckoned with within Sarkozy's ruling UMP party. He serves as the party’s East Coast delegate in the United States, and is the leader of the UMP bloc at the consultative Assembly of French Overseas Residents [Assemblée des Français de l’étranger, AFE].

Three months to open or drop an investigation

Lawyer Dumont-Beghi based her complaint on this tangled web of relationships, alleging that Guy Wildenstein’s proximity to Sarkozy, not to mention his dealings with Eric Woerth, are the main reason the finance ministry has failed to investigate the fiscal chapters of the Wildenstein affair.

The state prosecutor has three months to decide whether to open a preliminary investigation or close the books on the criminal complaint without further action. If the latter decision is taken, Sylvia Wildenstein maintains the option of filing a second civil action with herself as the principal party.

With the 2012 presidential elections looming, Sarkozy is once again faced with the worst-case scenario he has so far avoided in the Bettencourt affair: the nomination of an independent magistrate with powers to investigate allegations of influence-peddling by government officials.

English version: Lawrence Speer

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