Sunday, October 30, 2011

Wildenstein: The Art World's Most Powerful Dealer Family

In their day Duveen did okay.
From Vanity Fair:
Bitter Spoils

The messy, scandal-sheet divorce proceedings between Alec and Jocelyne Wildenstein may open the door on the secret history of the art world’s richest and most powerful family. From the intelligence network the Wildensteins created to accusations they collaborated with the Nazis, to the legendary contents of their vaults in New York and Switzerland, the author explores four generations of an insular art-dealing dynasty whose $5 billion fortune, Gulfstream IV, racing stable, private Virgin Island compound, and 66,000-acre Kenya ranch cannot erase the rancorous legacy handed down from father to son to son. 
Last September, Daniel Wildenstein’s family celebrated his 80th birthday with a party at the two-star restaurant Laurent, one of Paris’s most fashionable spots. It was an intimate dinner, for about 70 guests, to which Daniel’s 64-year-old second wife, Sylvia, had invited only her husband’s closest friends and his family, whose members had flown in for the occasion from New York, Montreal, and Palm Beach, some of them on the family’s private Gulfstream IV. Daniel’s two sons, Alec, 57, and Guy, 52, and Guy’s wife, Kristina, were there, as were all six of his grandchildren. Most of the friends in attendance that night were from the horse-racing world, trainers and jockeys who had worked with the Wildensteins over the years. Horse racing was the old man’s passion, and his stable, Allez France, is considered among the best in Europe.

Almost no one from the international art world was there, even though there were few people in that world whom Daniel Wildenstein, probably the richest and most powerful art dealer on earth, didn’t know. Wildenstein, always aloof from his peers, rarely ventured out in recent years, except for regular excursions to the track and his office.

As friends and family toasted him that night, Daniel appeared relaxed and happy. It was an evening devoted to celebration, and there was a lot to celebrate. So many things had turned out as he had planned. In the three and a half decades since he had taken over the 123-year-old family business from his father, Georges, Daniel had added greatly to the luster of the Wildenstein name and also amassed enormous wealth; estimated at more than $5 billion, his fortune was the only one of that magnitude ever made in the art market. People didn’t trifle with him or with his family, over which he maintained an iron control.

They said behind his back that he was “mean,” “ruthless,” and “frightening,” but few really knew him, because that was how he wanted it. Other families had their public scandals, but his did not. Over the years he had made sure very little had been written about it in the press. After all, he sold art to some of the world’s greatest collectors—Mellons, Annenbergs, David-Weills—people who valued secrecy and privacy as much as he did. His family’s vaults, hidden around Europe and America, contained one of the largest private collections of masterpieces in the world. It is believed that some of the paintings have not been seen in decades by anyone except Wildensteins—there is a rumor of a long-hidden Vermeer, and, according to Alec Wildenstein, Georges used to travel with a rolled-up Velázquez which was virtually unknown.
Daniel seemed determined to enjoy his birthday party as if nothing were wrong. But things were going wrong. Several days earlier, Alec had been arrested and thrown in jail, charged with threatening his estranged wife, Jocelyne, with a gun in their bedroom in the family’s Manhattan town house. The next morning, Alec’s face, haggard after a night in prison, was plastered across the tabloids.

Ever since the news of Alec and Jocelyne’s bitter divorce broke, three months before the birthday party, the press had been filled with stories about the Wildenstein family. Friends were stunned that they were finally making headlines. Some blamed Jocelyne for leaking information to the press. “It’s her way of taking revenge on people who never, never have their names in the paper,” says a friend of Sylvia’s. Daniel, faced with the unprecedented situation of a loose cannon, seemed to be doing exactly the wrong thing: he declared war on Jocelyne, cutting off her credit cards and trying to have her barred from the family’s homes, including the New York town house, the Château de Marienthal (reportedly the largest private residence in metropolitan Paris), the 66,000-acre Kenya ranch, and the family’s private island compound in the British Virgins.

But Jocelyne refused to be intimidated. After 19 years in the family, she had a powerful trump card: the stories no one had ever heard. Among those who seemed to be interested were the F.B.I. and the New York State tax authorities, which, sources close to Jocelyne say, have already been in touch with her. The entire art world was riveted. “Jocelyne could be the thread that unravels the whole sweater,” says a collector who has known the Wildensteins for two decades. “She could open up the whole story.”

On September 3, the day Alec was released from jail, The New York Times ran a story about artworks that had been stolen by the Nazis in 1940 and discovered recently in the possession of the Wildensteins. The report might have passed with little notice had it not been for Daniel’s comment to the newspaper that because the victims hadn’t come forth at the time they had no rights now. The remark was so “absolutely unbelievable, so breathtakingly unbelievable,” as one prominent art dealer put it, that it created a second controversy. People had whispered for years about the origins of the Wildenstein collection—that, despite their being French Jews themselves, they had made money by trafficking in art looted by the Nazis. The family has always dismissed such talk. “If you think something is ridiculous, why even comment on it?” says Alec.

The Wildenstein gallery on East 64th Street is the most sumptuous private gallery in New York. Built for the family in 1932 by Horace Trumbauer, whose firm also built the Widener library at Harvard and the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Louis XVI–style town house, down the street from the family’s Manhattan home, features a reception area with soaring 30-foot ceilings, marble floors, and a grand staircase that was modeled on the one in the Wildensteins’ headquarters in Paris, an 18th-century hôtel particulier on the Rue de la Boétie. In the basement, and in those of the three adjoining buildings, which the Wildensteins are believed to own, are lead-lined vaults. At one point, their inventory was said to include some 400 Italian primitives, two Botticellis, eight paintings each by Rembrandt and Rubens, three Velázquezes, nine El Grecos, five Tintorettos, 79 Fragonards, and seven Watteaus, not to mention an enormous collection of Impressionist paintings. No other art dealer in the world today has the stock of paintings and sculptures that the Wildensteins do. “If it’s obtainable privately,” says one prominent art collector, “the Wildensteins will have it. No one has their resources.”....MORE