The highly anticipated trial of the Wildenstein family on charges of tax evasion and money laundering was blocked in Paris today, 6 January, due to a legal technicality. The family’s lawyers argued that initiating combined criminal and civil proceedings for the same case was unconstitutional.
In a courtroom packed with more than 20 lawyers and dozens of journalists, the judges found that the question was serious enough to be put before the High Court of Justice. This will take months. If the High Court allows the hearings to proceed before the criminal court, the earliest they could now resume would be September.
The trial, the most spectacular ever launched in France for tax fraud, was planned to last a month, in a country where such matters are typically handled within a couple of days. Both the court and the tax office can impose huge fines (€550m are at stake here), but only the court can deliver a jail sentence.
The investigation was sparked by a family feud involving three widows— Sylvia, the late wife of the family patriarch Daniel Wildenstein, and Jocelyn and Liouba, the first and second wives of his son Alec—who said that they had been cheated out of their inheritance.
According to French authorities, part of the family wealth was transferred to foreign trusts after Daniel’s death in 2001. Guy Wildenstein, who now heads up the dynasty, says this was legal at the time and denies any wrongdoing.
The Wildenstein family founded one of the world’s greatest art empires. Apart from a huge stock of art works, the family also owns a 58,000 acre ranch in Kenya, an island in the Virgin archipelago, a château and a stable of thoroughbred racehorses in France, a manor house in central Paris and a 5-storey gallery near Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, New York (that the company reportedly tried to sell for $90m to Qatar).