The art of money laundering

“More money than sense” is how my grandma would have described Jocelyn Wildenstein, the ex-wife of the late Alec Wildenstein who is described by Wikipedia as “a billionaire French businessman, art dealer, racehorse owner and breeder”.  Jocelyn is most famous for her obsession with facial plastic surgery: she has spent a rumoured US$4 million on procedures to make her look like a cat.  She loves the look, apparently, although the press quickly dubbed her “the Bride of Wildenstein”.

What has this to do with money laundering, I hear you ask?  Very little, I will admit, except that the Wildenstein family’s source of wealth is now being called into question, as Alec’s younger brother Guy, Alec’s son and Alec’s widow Liouba Stouapkova have just gone on trial in France for tax evasion and money laundering.  The allegation is that they inherited vast sums from Alec and Guy’s father Daniel and in turn from Alec, and then hid it away from the taxman.  According to the Guardian, “a notary, two lawyers and two managers of secret trusts held in Guernsey and the Bahamas are also in the dock”.

The Wildensteins are so well known in the French art world that they are referred to simply as “les W”.  Guy is chums with Nicolas Sarkozy, and current boss of the Wildenstein Institute in Paris, which publishes catalogues raisonnés and scholarly inventories of artists such as Monet and Gauguin.  With this pedigree, you can imagine that financial institutions are falling over themselves to get Wildensteins on the books.  But this latest trial is not Guy’s first dance along the edges of the law: in 2011 he was charged with concealing art that had been reported missing or stolen – an investigation that remains ongoing.  It’s not a new message, I know, but for MLROs the message is simple: take nothing for granted, friends in high places prove nothing, and the most glittering surface can hide the murkiest depths.

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