From the Garden Shed Gang in Bromley Cross to a Jewish Dynasty on the Parisian Right Bank
IS NO-ONE safe to speculate on the art market anymore? Only last Friday we had Detective Constable Lawson of the London Metropolitan Police Arts & Antiquities Unit, preaching in the Bolton Museum to a packed auditorium about the need to protect the British art market from the likes of forgers like Shaun Greenhalgh and his family, but today it is France that's in the news with reports of a police raid last January on the posh art research building of the Wildenstein Institute on the Paris Right Bank. The International Herald Tribune reports today: 'It was third police raid on the institute, and at the end of it, the investigators carried away armloads of art, including Degas drawing, a bronze sculpture by Rembrandt Bugatti and an Impressionist painting of a Norman cottage by Berthe Morisot.' It seems they had all been reported missing or stolen,some by Jewish families whose property was looted by the Nazis, and others by heirs who claimed that valuable stuff had 'walked' during settlement of their family estates.
In all about 30 works have been seized by the French police and it focuses an awkward floodlight on the Wildenstein clan: one of the most famous French Jewish families of art dealers going back generations. They are perhaps the most illustrious and trusted dealers in the international art world. Now the family is confronted with six civil cases against it by aggrieved families who insist their artwork has been stolen plus allegations of money-laundering and tax evasion under the criminal law now being pursued by French anti-fraud investigators.
In the 1990s, a writer Hector Feliciano produced a book, 'The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art', suggesting that in World War II, Georges Wildenstein worked with a Nazi big wig art dealer, Karl Haberstock, who bought and sold art plundered from Jews. The Wildenstein family took out a libel suit that failed in the Courts saying the Feliciano had not been irresponsible or negligent in his conclusion based on the records, but the finding declined to decide one way or the other whether Mr. Wildenstein had actually done business with the Nazis.
The story in today's International Herald Tribune suggests that for all their wealth and catergoria that the Wildenstein family is less noble that the Greenhalgh's up Bromley Cross in Bolton. The Greenhalgh swindle was a talented cottage industry of art fraud that probably netted less than £1 million and was mostly damaging to the reputations of the art experts at the British Museum who authenticated Shaun Greenhalgh's creations. Most of the proceeds were recovered by the police and relatively little had been spent by the family, although D.C. Lawson said last Friday that 'they had two new cars on the front drive and I have only got an 8 year-old jalopy'. It is claimed that Shaun intended to spend the money on providing for his mum and dad in their old age. The Wilderstein case is much more murky with Sylvia, the widow of Daniel Wildenstein the son of Georges, taking out a lawsuit against her step-sons, Guy and Alec, 2 weeks after her husband's funeral in 2001. She claimed that they had convinced her that her husband had died bankrupt and that if she didn't renounce her inheritance rights that she faced a huge tax burden. The French Courts restored her rights as an heir in 2005, in what the Herald Tribune calls 'a scathing decision, ordering her step-sons to pay her 20 million euros as an advance on a fortune variously estimated between 43 million euros and 4 billion euros.' The Court noted that a fragile Mrs. Wildenstein had been the 'victim of a calculated error' to 'induce her to renounce her husband's estate.'
While the Greenhalgh family in Bolton seem blissfully unaware of the popular support that they have generated for themselves and hide away from publicity, the stepson Guy Wildenstein hobnobs with President Sarkozy's Popular Movement Party, which he backs as a major donor and fund raiser. Hence, the French press fear that their Government is dragging its feet, and with the 10-year statute of limitation on tax evasion running out in December this year and the Budget Ministry now declining to say if an inquiry is underway, it seems that Guy Wildenstein and his brother Alec may not suffer the same fate as Shaun Greenhalgh.