Whilst a major exhibition by the Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio prepares to launch at the National Gallery in London, the Wildenstein money-laundering trial involving a key painting by Caravaggio continues in Paris. The Painting which is now in storage in Switzerland complicates issues around the estate of Daniel Wildenstein, Guy Wildenstein’s father.
The masterpiece has been embroiled in the complicated financial matters of the billionaire French-American art-dealing family dynasty. The billionaire Wildenstein family, have denied tax evasion in the legal case in Paris over the estate. The Lute Player was featured as an example in court last week in a trial in which eight defendants, including Guy Wildenstein, the president of the New York art business Wildenstein & Company, are charged with tax evasion and money laundering. The French government estimates that the estate could owe at least €550m, including fines and interest.
Charges in the case suggest that Guy and his brother Alec moved valuable paintings from New York to Switzerland following the death of their father Daniel Wildenstein in Paris in 2001 to avoid inheritance tax. According to the AFP, The Lute Player, valued at €27m, was not included in the original declaration of inheritance in 2002. It was, however, in the second declaration of inheritance, issued in 2008—but simply “pour mémoire” (for the record), without a financial assessment.
Mr Wildenstein has stated that his father bought the painting 20 or 30 years ago and that it was not originally attributed to Caravaggio. Judge Olivier Geron told the court that the painting technically did not belong to Daniel Wildenstein, but to a company held by a trust. The defendants argue that such assets do not belong to the family and thus did not need to be declared. The prosecutors say such trusts are contrivances to avoid paying taxes while still holding on to the family’s fortune.
Guy Wildenstein pointed out that the painting had been offered as collateral to a bank to fund the opening of a new gallery, and that this is how the painting came to be considered the property of his father. He admitted that there was “confusion between what was the property of [his father] and the property of the gallery”, which itself belongs to a trust. The work was later loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it hung with a credit to an anonymous private collector, until 2013. The court was told that the painting was now in a vault “in Switzerland”.
Visit Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery until 15/1/2017