A Paris court accused Guy Wildenstein and his nephew, Alec Jr, of concealing an estimated €550 million (£493 million) from French tax authorities in 2016. The Wildenstein heirs were charged with hiding the family’s fortune in offshore tax havens and were asked to pay a €250 million (£224 million) fine as well as an eye-watering €616 million (£553 million) in outstanding taxes.
The Wildenstein fortune, which includes Old Master paintings, racehorses, and Caribbean properties, was estimated at over €1 billion (£897 million) when the case came to trial. The cornerstone of the Wildenstein family riches is its extraordinary art collection, which was founded by Guy’s great-grandfather Nathan, a cloth merchant from Alsace.
Nathan’s son Georges inherited his father’s passion for art-collecting and became a patron of Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso. Georges’ son Daniel continued the family tradition in the US, adding works by El Greco, Rembrandt and Renoir among others.
The Wildenstein heirs were acquitted in 2017 after presiding Judge Olivier Geron held that their actions were technically legal prior to the introduction of a 2011 fiscal law. Judge Geron further ruled there was insufficient evidence that Wildenstein knowingly committed tax fraud and that there had been failings in the investigation. An appeal court upheld the acquittal in 2018.
On Wednesday 6 January 2021, France’s highest court, the cour de cassation, annulled the acquittal and ordered a retrial of the case. The court now believes that the statute of limitations did not apply to protect the Wildenstein heirs from the charges. Furthermore, it holds that the appeals court did not justify its decision to clear the heirs’ use of trusts in inheritance funds and “wrongly considered there was no obligation at all to reintegrate the assets from trusts in inheritance” before 2011.
Guy Wildenstein’s lawyer, Hervé Témime, believes the retrial affords him the opportunity to “obtain another acquittal” for his client. But can the Wildensteins yet again succeed in escaping the clutches of the French tax law system?