Over the last ten years, concerns have grown in French public opinion regarding a major state affair. L’Oreal’s main shareholder and heiress, Liliane Bettencourt, was accused of illegally giving found to Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party. Similar in many regards to that first case, the Wildenstein affair seems not to attract the same attention. Have French people got bored with stories mixing wealthy families, political party sponsors, political cover up and awkward inheritance situation? May be. But from the outsider’s perspective such a story is simply unbelievable.
A mere story of succession
It took three generation for the Wildenstein family to become one of the most successful family in the world of art auction. The name of Wildenstein is now a synonym for expertise in the industry worldwide and especially in France and in the USA. In those countries the Wildensteins became rich by investing in art trading and race horse breeding. At the heart of the case is the patriarch of that successful family: Daniel Wildenstein. Daniel married twice. His second wife, Sylvia Roth, was fooled by her family-in-law when he died. Sylvia was actually told that renouncing her husband’s legacy was the condition to escape prosecution by the French tax authorities for a huge fiscal debt.
Sylvia was sick and seriously affected by the death of the man of whom she had lived with for several decades. She signed the documents her in-laws presented her and gave up on her inheritance before realizing the so-called fiscal debt was actually nothing much to be worried about in comparison with the assets Daniel Wildenstein left behind him. Right after that, Sylvia Roth hired Mr. Claude Dumont-Beghi as her lawyer to press charges. Sylvia Roth’s story goes public. For ten years she has been struggling against her in-laws. The court eventually commanded them to give her 15 million euros from Daniel’s legacy.
The swindle goes on
Alec Wildenstein, Daniel’s first son, died in 2008. He wished to ensure a peaceful life to his wife, Liouba, after he left. But Alec most likely feared his wife’s interest. That is at least what journalist Magali Serre wrote down in her book dedicated to the Wildensteins. Serre explains that Alec Wildenstein for instance dismissed his long time clerk Olivier Riffaud from notary office, also a close friend to the Wildensteins little before he died. When Alec dies however, the story repeats itself over again. Just like they did with Sylvia, Liouba’s in-laws explained her husband’s legacy comes with a 5 million euros debts to the tax authorities. But this time, the widow discovered the tax debt was fictitious and that the French tax administer claimed way too much money that what Alec could possible owe.
Liouba Wildenstein refused to give up the inheritance. She was sent death threat by telephone. She was also poisoned with mercury, arsenic and lead according to Intelligence Online. But she eventually took the case to court and proved that she was intentionally manipulated f. Which led lawyer Olivier Riffaud behind the walls of Fresnes’ prison in France for setting up the tax declarations. Although she made her point in court, Liouba Wildenstein never got the inheritance she was supposed to get. Strangely enough, the tax authorities never stopped prosecuting her though. They still claim for tax money based on some income she should have got from the inheritance but never actually got. For several years, the tax authorities have been putting Liouba Wildenstein under pressure. They contributed to the problem, may be without even realizing it.
Political cover up may be involved
In spite of her endeavor to ensure transparency, Liouba Wildenstein owes taxes and penalty the French state according the tax authorities. But the administration’s claim cannot go on forever. First, Liouba Wildenstein proved that she never owned the assets theses taxes and penalty were related. Second, all the Wildenstein family’ wealth is hoarded in some trusts held by family members. Third, trust are considered as donations by French law and are not to be included in the succession rights. Knowing this, the insistence of tax authorities is even more surprising.
The Wildenstein Affairs raised all the more suspicion since Guy Wildenstein, Alec’s brother and last heir of the family, is a friend to Nicolas Sarkozy. French/American art dealer Guy Wildenstein was decorated by the former president with the Legion of Honor, the highest national distinction in France. He was also one of the prime donator to the Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, during the former president’s campaign for presidency. Besides, Guy Wildenstein is still very close to that political party since he was elected representative of French people in the electoral district of Washington as a UMP candidate. Even the family’s lawyer, Olivier Riffaud is a close acquaintance to major French civil servants since he used to work at the highest level of the tax department in his country.
There are many reasons why tax authorities kept pressuring Liouba Wildenstein during Sarkozy’s presidency. Why do they keep doing so now that Sarkozy is no longer president though? Do the new socialist President François Hollande and Secretary of the Treasure Pierre Moscovici have some kind of deal with Guy Wildenstein? It might be difficult to investigate peacefully when a case involves so many high ranking protagonists. However, there is no doubt that the status quo in this affair is detrimental to Liouba Wildenstein. Meanwhile, her in-laws await patiently until she can no longer bear the fiscal pressure and renounce her inheritance. What an odd definition of justice.