PARIS - The heir of a New York art-dealing empire, Guy Wildenstein, goes to court in Paris on Thursday for allegedly hiding his family fortune for years in offshore tax havens, with French authorities demanding a staggering 553 million euros ($621 million) in back taxes.
Wildenstein, a 70-year-old Franco-American, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the criminal charges in what is one of the biggest tax fraud trials ever held in France.
Investigating judges say Wildenstein and his nephew Alec Wildenstein undervalued the family fortune in French estate tax returns after Guy’s father, Daniel Wildenstein -- a French citizen and renowned art dealer, collector and historian -- died in Paris in 2001.
The family fortune, estimated at more than one billion euros ($1.1 billion), includes the famous Wildenstein & Co. art gallery in New York, thoroughbreds and racehorses, a private business jet, properties in New York and the Virgin Islands, and a 75,000-acre ranch in Kenya where parts of the Oscar-winning movie “Out of Africa” were shot.
Daniel Wildenstein was also known to have owned numerous paintings by the likes of Monet, Renoir, Caravaggio, Picasso, Velazquez, and Rembrandt.
Guy Wildenstein has said he knew his father had used trusts but he didn’t know the details, being himself “neither a tax nor a financial specialist.” He has also claimed that French law didn’t then require anyone to declare assets held in offshore trusts to tax authorities.
Apart from small parts of the estate owned in France and London, “the whole patrimony of Daniel Wildenstein was held in trusts” located in tax havens like the Bahamas, Guernsey or the Cayman Islands, the investigating judges say in court documents.
The case was opened after Guy’s stepmother, Sylvia, who has since died, and sister-in-law Liouba, brought documents to French authorities amid fears they were being swindled.
Liouba is also a defendant in the trial, along with Alec, three tax lawyers and two trusts, all accused of committing or helping in tax fraud or money laundering. The trial is expected to last almost a month.