15 July 2011

The Wildenstein reality check

by Marc Masurovsky
[This article was updated on May 25, 2018.]

Guy Wildenstein found himself in a sticky situation pertaining to various matters involving art, money, and power.  In 2017, Wildenstein was cleared of tax fraud, but in March 2018, the French government, on appeal, requested four years of prison, with two suspended, and a punitive payment of 250 million euros.  The Wildensteins have asked that the charges be dropped. Why should all of this matter?

Aside from the fact that the Wildenstein name alone is synonymous with everything that is gigantic and disproportionate in the way that art is traded in today’s world, so it has been for the past six or so decades.

The Wildenstein family can only be matched in its zest for influence with the eponymous “robber barons” of US industry. With equal doses of verve, recklessness, swashbuckling ways and bravado, with not so subtle shades of arrogance, the Wildenstein dynasty has imposed itself upon the global art market as one of its kingmakers, with traditional spheres of influence centered in Western Europe and North America.

Why the hullabaloo? For many, it is more like a sporting game to go after the powerful and mighty of any industry, and especially nowadays those in the art industry which provide much grist for the mill. Yes, industry, as opposed to taste. Or taste in the pursuit of profit. No matter.

Georges Wildenstein was the true scion of the family, the man who made Daniel, his late son, and Daniel thence made his sons, Guy and Alec (he died in 2008), in the dynastic family mold, for better or for worse.  The flagship of his business was in Paris with branches in London, New York, and even Buenos Aires. Georges knew everyone there was to know, much like his archrival, Paul Rosenberg. Although keenly interested in 19th and 20th century artists, he definitely expressed a marked preference for the 18th century and its creators, stylists, and decorators. In fact, that’s where he excelled. Old Masters? Of course. Medieval pieces? Why not?

The Wildenstein clientele is powerful, both in private as well as in State circles. Georges was well introduced among curators and directors of museums across Europe and the Americas; a well-heeled man with his frivolities, paranoid moments, and phobias.

Georges fled to the south of France before the German Army entered Paris in June 1940, leaving his Parisian business in the managerial care of Roger Dequoy, who had run his London office.

Georges ended up in New York via Lisbon, a preferred route for most exiles at that time who crossed the Atlantic either by Pan Am clipper or by boat, depending on means and resources.

The Wildenstein interests in Paris were quickly subjected to the gluttony of the Nazis’ culture vultures. Competing German plundering units raided at least five sites owned or controlled by Georges Wildenstein, including two bank vaults, his gallery in Paris, and three residences with two in the French countryside.  The gallery’s stock, Georges’ privately-owned inventory in half-a-dozen locations across France, as well as a handful of bank vaults, fell into the hands of the Nazis by the second half of 1941. His library attracted many interested buyers including a close friend of René de Chambrun who intrigued with the pro-Nazi industrial group in Vichy France, aspiring for the new France to be the Aryan vassal of the New Germany. The Gazette des Beaux-Arts, which Wildenstein had run for decades, together with the rest of his assets, were subjected to Aryanization proceedings under the aegis of the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives (CGQJ). Certain German interests represented by Karl Haberstock, a senior Nazi cultural agent operating in occupied territories, sought to derail Vichy’s absorption of Wildenstein’s assets in order to channel them under Nazi control. Regardless, Georges was a bona fide victim of Nazi aggression and cultural plunder.

The plot thickens... and this is where Hector Feliciano, author of “The Lost Museum”, got himself in a legal hornet’s nest with Georges Wildenstein’s heirs. Although the Wildenstein suit against Feliciano was eventually dismissed, it nearly ruined Mr. Feliciano.  Haberstock and Wildenstein were old friends and business partners. Together, they had acquired and sold paintings for at least a decade prior to 1940. Feliciano implied that Georges and Karl had struck a deal whereby Georges’ cultural assets would fall under Nazi protection and he could continue to do business as he liked in German-occupied France under the stewardship of Karl Haberstock, using Dequoy as a go-between. A hefty charge which requires flawless historical documentation. Incidentally, the Foreign Funds Control Division of the US Treasury Department under Henry Morgenthau suspected as much and monitored Georges Wildenstein's cable traffic throughout 1941.

Dequoy’s wartime management of the Wildenstein House in German-occupied Paris proved to be a financial bonanza for him as he had engineered the Aryanization of the gallery, which Vichy and the Germans had suspected of being a sham to cloak Georges Wildenstein’s assets. Nevertheless, Dequoy survived the war unscathed and a rich man. Wildenstein continued to rely on his managerial experience with the firm in the postwar years.

Wildenstein’s wartime cultural losses are well-documented, most notably in the publicly accessible and fully searchable ERR database where more than 500 objects owned by Georges Wildenstein are listed as having been looted by the Nazis. Many works are still missing. There are also concerns that looted objects belonging to other victims of Nazi plunder might have been erroneously transferred to Georges Wildenstein by French restitution authorities after the war. If that is true, his case would be no different than those of many other victims of Nazi plunder since these flawed returns contaminated many postwar restitutions, a perverse way for postwar European governments of applying the law of in-kind restitution: if it looks like your object, why don’t you take it anyway?

Only a detailed and comparative forensic analysis of postwar restitution files can resolve these knotty questions. They have direct relevance to the controversy over the so-called Kann manuscripts—stunning medieval books which were looted from Alphonse Kann’s house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye between summer 1940 and spring of 1941. A number of them were still missing in 1945. At least one had fallen, according to the Kann heirs, into the hands of Georges Wildenstein who, truth be told, had lost similar manuscripts as well. A lengthy legal battle ensued in an American court which pitted the Kann heirs against the Wildenstein interests. Despite the fact that an art historian close to the Wildensteins could not certify that Wildenstein had ever owned the claimed manuscripts, the Kanns lost on technical grounds, not on historical substance.  From a forensic and historical standpoint, the case remains open for renewed investigation.  However, it is unlikely that it will be reopened, despite the fact that the historical evidence mitigated in favor of the Kann family.