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Monday, October 17, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Sarkozy Paymaster, Guy Wildenstein's Alter Ego Really Is Dr No

Art Dealer Guy Wildenstein Faces New Charges of Hiding Billions Across the Globe

The assets of the storied


family of art dealers are vast, including 19th-century paintings, a private island in the Virgin Islands, and a ranch in Kenya where the movie "Out of Africa" was filmed. Now the French budget ministry has demanded an investigation into the family's dealings, and scion

Guy Wildenstein

stands accused of hiding his true wealth from the French government.

The state's intervention is only the latest development in the legal drama swirling around New York-based megadealer. The heir to the storied Wildenstein and Company gallery, which was founded in Paris in the 19th century and now has branches in New York, London, and Tokyo, was already accused of fraud by his stepmother,Sylvia Roth, for allegedly concealing the majority of his father's fortune in offshore trusts in places including Ireland, the island of Guernsey, and the Cayman Islands when administering his estate. Roth died in November 2010, but her lawyer, Claude Dumont-Beghi, has pursued the case in accordance with her client's dying wishes.

According to French news magazine Le Point, Wildenstein is suspected of having declared "only a minuscule portion" of his father's estate, which Le Nouvel Observateur estimates at €4 billion ($5.5 billion). A preliminary investigation began last week into charges of breach of trust and money laundering.

Judge Guillaume Daief is now in charge of both Roth's suit against Wildenstein and the government's case, and the two investigations have been combined. Le Point also reports that the police raided the office of a tax lawyer who is suspected of having helped Wildenstein cover up large sums of money brought back into France from offshore trusts.

The state's slow response to the accusations of tax fraud has raised suspicions of cronyism and preferential treatment within the government of Nicolas Sarkozy. Wildenstein was a generous contributor to Sarkozy's election campaign, becoming a member of the "premier cercle" of donors established by the politician as well as receiving the elite distinction of Commander of the Legion of Honor, which was conferred by Sarkozy personally in 2009. Guy Wildenstein's father, Daniel Wildenstein, died in 2001, and starting in 2009 Roth's lawyer informed the government multiple times of his widow's suspicions of tax fraud.

Even now that the investigation has been formally launched, suspicions remain that the government will not vigorously pursue the case. When current budget minister Valérie Pécresse was questioned about it by the National Assembly last week, she refused to discuss the Wildenstein tax burden. "Just as a family doctor does not have the right to reveal information about a patient, a budget minister does not have the right to reveal tax information about the situation of one of our countrymen," Pécresse said, according to Le Nouvel Observateur.

Earlier this year, Wildenstein was also charged with possession of stolen goods and breach of trust in a separate case which is still ongoing. While investigating Roth's lawsuit, police found 30 artworks in the Wildenstein Institute by artists including Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, and Rembrandt Bugatti that had disappeared from the estates of noted collectors with whom Daniel Wildenstein was associated.

The great art robbery

The great art robbery
Kishore Singh / New Delhi October 15, 2011, 0:21 IST

News that two paintings by Nicholas Roerich stolen from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute were auctioned recently in London became widely reported. The IARI said it would investigate the missing paintings, trustees cried out for an audit of Roerich’s works, there has been the suggestion that CBI and Interpol will look into the matter. Yet, despite claims that the paintings fetched $2 million, no one seems to know the auction house where the sale was conducted, no buyers have been mentioned, and no one knows who (stupidly — if they were indeed “stolen”) consigned them for auction.

This is not the first time that Roerich’s paintings have been stolen. In 2009, two small works valued at $30,000 were reported missing from the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York. It was suggested that the Russian art market might have been responsible for the episode.

The Russian-born Roerich is widely acknowledged as an intellectual giant in the land of his birth, and though he is respected in India where he lived for the last two decades of his life (from 1927 to 1947), he is perhaps somewhat less regarded despite a museum of his works in Naggar, Himachal. A prolific artist in his lifetime, many of these later works deal with the Himalayas — his Lao-Tse was auctioned in 2006 for a record $2.2 million.

Such prices alone could be a reason for the theft of Roerich’s works, given the poor security at many of our institutions, but one would hardly expect them to surface at auctions. Art does go unaccounted in India, as much from willful negligence as for culpable complicity, but this is as yet a small enough percentage, probably because markets for the sale of high-value art are limited. Collectors of a certain kind would rather shell out cheaply for fakes than for pricier stolen paintings, given that their visibility — a necessary condition for buying art in the first place — could invite unwanted, unwelcome attention.

Much more art gets stolen in the West because collectors are willing to risk the secret pleasure that stolen but cherished art brings them, while the principal concern in India remains a problem of fakes. But the missing Roerichs are a pointer to the possibility of a growing nexus between those familiar with the value of art gifted to or purchased by institutions that, for reasons of bureaucratic indifference and the lack of auditing processes, remain neglected by those who do not concern themselves with modern art.

Till a few decades ago, artists gave away works to select institutions, including hotels, either inexpensively, or gratis, for the prestige it brought them. Today, when the value of art has soared, it is these institutions that must be held accountable — and auditable — for the art that they have cared so little about. Sometimes buildings have been sold lock, stock and art, even in the private sector, with the new buyer consigning the old art unknowingly to kabariwallahs; as often, renovations have resulted in commissioned works being replaced by shinier but inferior works — the result of organisations not taking the trouble to document and value their art collections. As information on the purloined Roerichs trickles in, institutions must attempt to ensure that such neglect, and thefts, remain the exception rather than the rule.

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