Vincent Van Gogh, ‘The Olive Pickers,’ 1889
For half a century starting in the 1950s, Greek shipping mogul Basil Goulandris and his wife, Elise, lived in a manner worthy of a sun-soaked, Patricia Highsmith novel. They palled around with European aristocracy and flitted among their seven homes in places like Paris, New York’s Southampton and Switzerland’s Gstaad—when they weren’t sailing around the world on their yacht, “Paloma.”
The couple never had children. Instead, relatives say they devoted their energies to amassing one of the world’s best private art collections, valued at as much as $3 billion by one estimate. The trove of several hundred pieces included 11 Picassos, six van Goghs, five Cezannes and a rare pair of Monet’s 1894 views of the Rouen Cathedral, one bathed in blue hues and the other one in pink. The couple also had a bronze ballerina by Degas, a Pollock and a Balthus. When Balthus’s biographer, Nicholas Fox Weber, visited the couple in Switzerland, he said the paintings rimming their walls “made my knees go wobbly.”
The Goulandris collection is now at the center of one of the biggest and most complex legal disputes over art in Europe—including a bombshell revelation in the Panama Papers. The saga involves a collection of treasures that have largely been hidden for the past two decades, a secret seller using an offshore company to put up paintings for auction and a fight that boils down to one nonexistent will and one cryptic one.
The chief protagonist in this 16-year family feud is a niece of the Goulandris’s who claims she and her cousins should have inherited much of the couple’s art after their aunt Elise died in 2000. The niece, Aspasia Zaimis, a feisty shipbuilder’s wife who is in her 70s and lives in Athens, says her aunt owned the trove when she died and intended for it to go to her relatives. Another set of cousins on her uncle’s side—and the couple’s namesake foundation—say otherwise. “People who say the collection wasn’t hers anymore are being unfair and degrading to my aunt,” Ms. Zaimis said. “I’m fighting for her.”
Her main opponent is one of the couple’s longtime employees, a soft-spoken, snowy-haired historian named Kyriakos Koutsomallis, who manages the art collection of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation in Athens, which claims a right to some of the disputed art. Mr. Koutsomallis and the foundation are currently transforming a neoclassical mansion in Athens to become a 12-story museum that’s expected to display at least some of the Goulandris collection when it opens early next year. Mr. Koutsomallis, along with relatives on Mr. Goulandris’s side of the family, claim the most valuable pieces of the couple’s art collection—83 works— were quietly sold to an offshore company several years before Mr. Goulandris died and should not be part of any inheritance claims. Twenty nine of those 83 paintings—including some choice works like Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 “Olive Pickers” —have since been redirected back to the foundation, Mr. Koutsomallis has said in court papers, and are therefore not part of the widow’s estate. No one will say where the remaining works are located.
To finance her continuing court battles, Ms. Zaimis has made an unusual arrangement with a longtime New York private dealer, Ezra Chowaiki. In exchange for the lucrative rights to sell any paintings should Ms. Zaimis eventually prevail, Mr. Chowaiki said he has helped fund a case in Greece which Ms. Zaimis filed in 2001 and later shifted to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
Arrangements like these are rare outside the realm of Nazi art restitution. Heirs to lost Jewish fortunes often team up with art lawyers who work for a promised share of any eventual art sales—an arrangement depicted in last year’s Helen Mirren film, “Woman in Gold.”
Now, art lawyers are following the Goulandris case to see if Mr. Chowaiki’s long bet on the collection, which he estimates is valued at $3 billion, will pay off or flounder. No estate worth more than roughly $500 million has ever come to auction. Thomas C. Danziger, a New York art lawyer who isn’t involved with the case, said, “It’s Agatha Christie meets Homer.”
One big reason for the ownership dispute: Mr. Goulandris died in 1994 without a will. After his death at age 81, relatives from his side of the family say they told his widow that in 1985 Mr. Goulandris had sold off the 83 gems of the couple’s collection to a Panamanian company controlled by his side of the family. It was called Wilton Trading. Mr. Goulandris was in debt at the time, the relatives say, and thus he accepted a firesale price of $31.7 million, or roughly $382,000 apiece. Elise Goulandris didn’t initially know about the sale but she allegedly went along with it, relatives said in court documents....MUCH MORE