The art collecting world remains as much about collecting name cache as it does about collecting art. Becoming a trusted dealer and banking on that brand name allows you to build your bank account. It’s that seemingly unbreakable circle of influence that makes the recent L’affaire Guy Wildenstein in Paris all the more scandalous and troubling for art collectors and art lovers. Wildenstein, an international dealer in Old Master and Impressionist art for decades, stands accused of stealing valuable art works from the estates of dead customers entrusted to his care. The French government seized a room full of works believed to have been seized unlawfully by Wildenstein. Mix in the fact that Wildenstein is a major contributor and “bon ami” of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and you have the makings of a major scandal of international proportions that leaves not just Wildenstein’s estate and his victims’ estates unsettled, but shakes the foundation of art dealing to its very core.
Son of Daniel Wildenstein, scion of the family art business and important Impressionist art scholar, Guy took over the family business when his father passed away and assumed even greater duties when his brother died years ago. The Wildenstein name always carried a certain elan not only in Paris, but also in New York City, where the center of the art world shifted from the City of Lights after World War II. No matter where the center of the art business rested, a Wildenstein would always be nearby.
The French authorities “J’accuse” Wildenstein of systematically stealing from the estates of customers who entrusted the caretaking of their collections to him after their death. Amazingly, these accusations began with charges filed by Guy’s stepmother, Sylvia, who died a few months ago, that the Wildensteins were not declaring the true extent of their estate to the government. A French anti-fraud unit photographed a room at the Wildenstein Institute where Wildenstein had stacked hundreds of artworks from the floor to the ceiling. Wildenstein did his best to paint Sylvia as the stereotypical “wicked stepmother” of fairy tale lore, but the photographic evidence and claims by descendents cheated of their artistic inheritance are telling a much more frightening story.
Yves Rouart, nephew of Anne-Marie Rouart, who died in 1993, claims that Wildenstein and Olivier Daulte, who were the executors of Rouart estate, removed art from the old lady’s apartment to keep him from inheriting it. Madame Rouart left instructions that the majority of her collection be donated to the Musée Marmottan, with the remainder to go to her descendents. One of those paintings, Berthe Morisot’s The Cottage in Normandy (detail shown above) turned up in the French police’s search, lending credence to Yves Rouart’s claim and making other customers of the Wildenstein take notice.
Huge names such as Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas have come up in the discussion of possible works stolen, but the name of Nicolas Sarkozy currently overshadows even them. Wildenstein contributed heavily to Sarkozy’s campaigns and even helped found the ruling UMP party. Last year, Sarkozy personally awarded “Mon ami Guy” with France’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur. What, if anything, Sarkozy does for Wildenstein remains to be seen, but the French public will keep a close eye on the case.
What troubles me even more than the broken trust and stolen property of the families who dealt with Wildenstein is the loss to museums when the Old Guy disregarded the wishes of art collectors upon their death and pocketed the masterpieces rather than share them with the public. This theft affects everyone who values culture and believes that the great artists belong to all people. Only when that trust is restored and a better system of monitoring these trustees is established will the state of art donation be restored to some semblance of trust.