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The Fall of the Art World’s First Family

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Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day. 1877, Art Institute of Chicago (Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

 

For five generations, the Wildensteins have built a fortune unequaled among art dealers. (It has been estimated as being worth at least $5 billion and their non-art assets included a 66,000-acre ranch in Kenya.) They have at various times acquired and sold works by Van Gogh, Monet, Caravaggio, Caillebotte, and many, many other iconic artists.

Now the family shows signs of splintering. The French government claims that the Wildensteins owe a staggering $496 million in unpaid taxes and fees. Beyond this, the Wildensteins have been feuding among themselves. Alec and Jocelyn Wildenstein had a bitter, high-profile divorce (Jocelyn also became a tabloid favorite due to her extensive plastic surgery). The widow of Daniel Wildenstein sued her two stepsons over claims they swindled her out of her inheritance, in the process triggering an investigation by French tax authorities that led to the accusation the Wildensteins had declared only a tenth of their actual assets.

The art market may soon be flooded by Wildenstein-owned masterpieces as they seek to earn the cash to pay their bills. Additionally, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art could take a hit: the Wildensteins have loaned them hundreds of works and may start reclaiming them to settle the tab. (Already Caravaggio’s The Lute Player, which could theoretically fetch $100 million at auction, has been recalled.)

Read more about this remarkable fortune and its possible dissolution here.

 

1890, oil on canvas, 93 × 74 cm (36.6 × 29.1 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Vincent Van Gogh’s Roses. 1890, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

 

Jean Monet (1867-1913) on His Hobby Horse by Claude Monet (Photo by Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Claude Monet’s Jean Monet on His Hobby Horse. 1872. (Photo by Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)