The trial this September will determine whether the family and their companions owe a huge tax bill. The last time prosecutors went after the Wildensteins, a few years ago, they sought €866 million — €616 million in back taxes and €250 million in fines, as well as jail time for Guy. The consequences may do more than bring down the family’s art empire. The case provided an unusual insight into how the ultra-rich use the art market to avoid taxes, and sometimes worse. Agents who raided the Wildenstein vaults turned up artworks that had long been reported missing, fueling speculation that the family may be in possession of Nazi-looted or otherwise stolen art, and prompted several other lawsuits against the family in recent years. The financial distortions saved the family hundreds of millions of dollars, prosecutors say, but their treatment of Sylvia could cost them more — and perhaps lead to the end of their dynasty.
So that prove that Alec and Guy misled Sylvia about her husband’s estate, Dumont Beghi first had to find out what assets they were reporting. But since Sylvia had renounced her inheritance, she had no right to that information at all. “Every deed, every bank statement, every property inventory item and every document related to Daniel Wildenstein’s succession is in the hands of Guy and Alec,” said Dumont Beghi, and they do not intend to return them .
Dumont Beghi’s first move, then, was to ask the court to annul the agreement Sylvia had signed to give up her inheritance. Only then did he access details about Daniel’s property. Fortunately, he had a persuasive precedent to show the judge. Sylvia isn’t the first wife the Wildensteins have tried to cut off by pleading hardship: Jocelyne Wildenstein, Alec’s first wife, was also stripped of the family fortune in a 1999 divorce, in which Alec said she was an unpaid personal assistant to his father. Documents revealed in court in New York – where the couple primarily live – valued the family’s art collection at around $10 billion. The judge in the case said that Alec’s income statement “insults the intelligence of the court”; he settled for a rumored $3.8 billion – which is the largest divorce settlement in New York history. (Jocelyne denied the settlement was $3.8 billion but admitted it was “huge.”)
Dumont Beghi argued that if the family was worth billions at the time, there is reason to doubt that Daniel, who orchestrated the deal between Alec and Jocelyne, would have died heavily in debt just two years later. The French court ordered Guy and Alec to hand over Daniel’s property declaration. This includes several properties in France, several cars, paintings and bank accounts, totaling €42 million. Dumont Beghi does not believe that figure is close to the real value of the property, but still, “It is not nothing, for a person who died broke.” And this shows, according to Dumont Beghi, that Sylvia renounced her inheritance under false pretenses.
Dumont Beghi’s next step is to get his hands on Daniel’s medical records. He learns that he spent his last days in an unresponsive, vegetative coma — and yet apparently signed a contract to sell his 69 thoroughbreds (including Sylvia’s) to his children for a pittance. In 2005, the court granted Sylvia’s request to annul her resignation. This was just the beginning of what Dumont Beghi called his international “treasure hunt” for every hidden masterpiece, undeclared property and offshore account left behind by Daniel’s estate.