PARIS — International art dealer Guy Wildenstein went on trial in Paris Monday on charges of tax fraud and money laundering, after two relatives tipped off investigators about the family's financial dealings — prompting authorities to demand a staggering 553 million euros ($602 million) in back taxes.
Wildenstein, 70, the Franco-American heir of a New York art-dealing empire, is accused of concealing much of his inherited fortune in trusts held in offshore tax havens. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
In one of the biggest tax fraud trials ever held in France, investigating judges say Wildenstein and his late brother Alec fraudulently undervalued the enormous family patrimony in the estate tax return after their father Daniel, a French citizen and a renowned art dealer, collector and historian, died in Paris in 2001.
In a rare interview with French magazine Paris Match, Wildenstein said he knew his father had used trusts but he didn't know details, being himself "neither a tax nor a financial specialist." Guy Wildenstein also claimed that French law didn't then require anyone to declare estate held in these trusts to tax authorities.
Apart from small parts of the estate owned in France and London and mentioned in the brothers' documents, "the whole patrimony of Daniel Wildenstein was held in trusts" located in tax havens like the Bahamas, Guernsey, Nassau or the Cayman Islands, the investigating judges say in court documents.
This "hidden" estate consisted of properties in New York and the Virgin Islands, art galleries including New York's Wildenstein & Co., racehorses, thoroughbreds and companies dealing with their exploitation, a private business jet and a 75,000-acre ranch in Kenya where parts of the seven-Oscar movie "Out of Africa" were shot.
Daniel Wildenstein was also known to own many paintings by Monet, Renoir, Caravaggio, Picasso, Bonnard, Velazquez, Fragonard and Rembrandt.
The case was opened after Guy's stepmother, Sylvia, who has since died, and sister-in-law Liouba, both afraid of being swindled, brought documents to French justice.
Liouba is also a defendant in the trial, along with Alec Jr. and three tax lawyers, accused of committing or helping in tax fraud or money laundering.