The billionaire art dealer Guy Wildenstein, has been cleared of tax fraud and money laundering in a Paris criminal court today (12 January). This must come as an embarrassment to the French government, who have spent millions of tax payers money to bring the high-profile prosecution Wildenstein along with seven other co-defendants was accused of hiding wealth including paintings and properties worth hundreds of millions of euros from the French taxman.
Judge Olivier Geron stated in the courtroom that there had been a “clear attempt” at concealment, according to the BBC. But shortcomings in the investigation and French tax fraud legislation meant it was impossible for Geron to return a guilty verdict for any of the accused.
“There had been a “clear attempt” at concealment, according to the BBC”
Wildenstein and other members of his family were charged with having hidden the majority of a fortune estimated at several billion euros thanks to a sophisticated web of trusts and tax havens. The month-long trial last year offered a glimpse into the often opaque art world, shining a spotlight on how the Franco-American family handled its assets, including an art collection of more than 2,500 works, following the death of Guy Wildenstein’s father Daniel in 2001 and his brother, Alec, in 2008.
The defense case focused on the legal uncertainty around the financial trusts in which the Wildensteins registered their assets. The rule that requires such trusts to be declared only came into effect in 2011, years after the deaths of Daniel and Alec. Lawyers for the Wildensteins also argued that the assets held by trusts did not legally belong to Daniel Wildenstein, and so did not need to be declared by the family when settling the estate tax.
The Wildenstein family estate includes famous paintings, Caribbean properties, racehorses, and a Kenyan ranch. The level of secrecy around the family fortune was first uncovered in the late 1990s during messy divorce proceedings between Guy’s brother Alec and his then-wife, Jocelyn. Ten years later in 2008, after Alec’s death, Guy Wildenstein declared an inheritance of $61m (£50m; €57m). But repeated claims by other women who had married into the family led investigators to look again at the Wildenstein finances in 2010.
Prosecutors had called for a four-year prison sentence and a fine of €250m for Mr. Wildenstein but as usual with cases like these, he got off scot-free!