Thursday 31 August 2023

5 Years ago: The 'master manipulator' who enslaved a family in Oxford - BBC Inside Out / 10 years ago: French aristocrat tells how conman lured her to Oxford and stole family fortune

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French aristocrat tells how conman lured her to Oxford and stole family fortune


Christine de Védrines's memoir sheds light on the incredible story of a noble French family conned by 'hypnotic' trickster


Kim Willsher in Bordeaux

Sat 10 Aug 2013 13.03 BST


If Christine de Védrines's privileged life had gone to plan, she would now be sitting in a vast turreted ancestral chateau surrounded by sunflowers in a picturesque corner of south-west France. Instead, after a bizarre interlude in a semi-detached house in Oxford, this elegant, unmistakably aristocratic woman is living with her husband, Charles-Henri, heir to the family seat, and three grownup children in a claustrophobic council flat on the outskirts of Bordeaux.


They are, she says in her first interview since publishing a memoir of one of the most extraordinary cons ever perpetrated, financially "ruined". Robbed of their fortune and heritage by a machiavellian fraudster. "Now we have nothing," she says as a statement of fact, devoid of self-pity.


For more than a decade now, the Védrines have been at the centre of an incredible story described as a mix of Harry Potter, Dan Brown, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Christine de Védrines has decided to give her own version in a book entitled Nous n'étions pas armés (We weren't armed), detailing their ordeal. Charles-Henri, 65, and their three children, Guillaume, 35, Amaury, 32, and Diane, 27, have each contributed their side of the incredible tale. The family have written the book, she says, partly as a cathartic act, partly as a warning.


Many still find it hard to believe that 11 wealthy, cultured and intelligent members of a noble Protestant family could have been brainwashed for nearly a decade by a confidence trickster who fleeced them of nearly €5m (£4.3m). Between 1999 and 2009, Thierry Tilly plunged them into collective paranoia, convinced that only he could save them from a sinister masonic plot.


It was Charles-Henri's older sister Ghislaine, director of a Paris secretarial college, who employed Tilly as her deputy, who introduced the conman into the family. At first the Védrines were impressed by his claims of contacts in high places – Tilly claimed to be a descendant of the Habsburgs and the son of an Olympic ice-skater – and the fraudster's money-making schemes. Soon, however, Tilly had convinced them he was a secret agent and that their lives were in danger and they were being bugged, followed and spied on by an evil network that included other family members.


Incredible as it seemed, one by one they fell under his spell, including family matriarch Guillemette, aged 88; an older brother, Philippe, a retired Shell Oil executive; and Charles-Henri, a successful and popular obstetrician. It was, as one family member, banished after questioning Tilly's motives, said, as if he had "opened their heads and taken out their brains".


"As his profession and character demands, he [Charles-Henri] is prudent and pragmatic," Christine writes, but despite this her husband still "gave all his confidence … thanks to the chameleon-like talent of Thierry Tilly".


Believing itself endangered, the family was soon barricading itself behind the closed shutters of the ancestral home, Chateau Martel, in the pretty medieval village of Monflanquin in the Lot-et-Garonne, cutting off contact with the outside world.


Christine de Védrines, 62, admits the convoluted saga stretches credibility. "If someone told me this story, I would have difficulty believing it," she told the Observer. "But it happened. It's true. We were all manipulated."


Tilly is currently serving 10 years in jail for the kidnap, brutal treatment, extortion and abuse of weakness of the Védrines family. The Védrines' jewels, paintings and several properties, however, have all gone, and their money, supposedly invested by Tilly, has disappeared into the offshore ether.


"I heard someone on the radio talking about us and saying we were cultured, educated, intelligent and this should have armed us against Tilly," Christine told the Observer last week. "But it didn't. We were simply not armed to deal with someone who lied on such an extraordinary scale. Maybe we were naive, but we were not used to another human being lying to us, tricking us. We did not expect it. Thierry Tilly was a bad person, a predator, a vampire. And we were like puppets, unable to stop him. He was very clever. It was almost as if we were hypnotised."


Tilly uprooted the family to the UK, telling them their lives were at risk in France, then beat, threatened and humiliated Christine to obtain the "key" to a non-existent family fortune he claimed she possessed, turning her own children against her.


The spell was only broken in March 2009, when Christine fled back to France and went to the police. Tilly was arrested in Switzerland shortly afterwards, but such was his power over the family it was six months before her husband and children were persuaded to return with the help of a lawyer specialising in cults, Daniel Picotin.


"People ask how he could have manipulated all 11 of us, but it didn't help being so many. It meant every time someone expressed a doubt about him, someone else would justify what he was doing. We were all manipulated," said Christine.


Charles-Henri, who inherited Château Martel, said he had been devastated to discover Tilly had tricked him into signing papers to sell the property, sealing the couple's ruin. He is contesting the sale. "When the lawyer told me I almost fell off my chair. I thought I was signing for a loan. I would never have knowingly sold Martel. I wasn't in my right mind, but I wouldn't have agreed to sell my family home – my, and my children's, heritage. I will fight to my dying day to get it back."


Today the family is trying to rebuild some kind of normal life. Charles-Henri has returned to work as a doctor to feed the family, Diane is studying chemistry, Guillaume has his own insurance business and Amaury has just finished a business degree. Christine remains resolutely upbeat. What she misses most, she said, is not the chateau or her engagement ring, taken by Tilly, but the poems and notes to her late parents, the Mother's Day cards from her children. "They were in a suitcase taken to Oxford. I haven't a clue what Tilly did with them," she said. "They're not worth anything, but they were my memories."


She said her book, which she hopes will be translated into English, is an attempt to establish "the truth" of the family's bizarre ordeal, and a warning to others of the "extraordinary things that can happen to an ordinary family. For 10 years we lived with Thierry Tilly's lies. I wanted to leave a record of the truth."


 This article was amended on 12 August 2013. The original said that Monflanquin in the Lot-et-Garonne is in south-east France. It is in the south-west.

We Were Not Armed: The family whose lives were stolen by a conman

by Christine de Védrines (Author) 


This is the story of how a family can be destroyed by a chain of events that begin when one member puts her trust in a conman. At the beginning of the 21st century, the de Védrines were an ancient aristocratic Bordeaux family, educated and socially established. From the outside they had everything they could have wished for – wealth, love, friends, education and family. But the very closeness and trust they had with each other ended up splitting them apart. Exploiting a mix of family pride, historic roots, and personal identity, an outsider – a criminal called Thierry Tilly – stripped the family over ten years of their houses, their money and their personal dignity. It took the courage of Christine de Védrines to break away from Tilly’s iron grip. Her story of how she did that is simply told but moving and sometimes almost unbearable.

L'affaire des reclus de Monflanquin est le nom donné par la presse à une affaire d'emprise mentale dont a été victime une famille de notable bordelais pendant près de dix ans.

Un escroc, Thierry Tilly, manipule onze membres de la famille Védrines, leur faisant croire qu'ils sont menacés par un complot. De 2000 à 2009, Tilly extorque près de 4,5 millions d'euros au groupe, retranché dans le château familial de Monflanquin dans le Lot-et-Garonne, puis dans une autre propriété familiale et enfin à Oxford. Christine de Védrines échappe à son emprise en mars 2009 et porte plainte. Tilly est condamné en 2013 à dix ans de prison.


C'est Ghislaine qui en 1997 fait la connaissance de Thierry Tilly alors qu'elle cherche une entreprise de nettoyage industriel pour l'école qu'elle dirige à Paris. Elle est intellectuellement séduite par cet homme, qui gagne rapidement sa confiance. Tilly devient son bras droit, et courant 1999 elle le présente à ses frères, à sa mère. Il écoute leurs confidences, les conseille dans leurs affaires en se prétendant gestionnaire de patrimoine, joue sur les inimitiés familiales et les rivalités successorales.


Tilly se prétend agent secret, persuade les Védrines qu'ils sont victimes d'un complot, que les pédophiles, les francs-maçons, les Rose-Croix, le fisc les menacent. En septembre 2001, il convainc onze personnes du groupe de se retrancher pour leur sécurité dans leur château familial à Monflanquin ; ceux qui sont sceptiques, comme Jean Marchand, sont exclus par leurs proches, selon un scénario précis rédigé par Tilly. Dans le petit village, le groupe de retranchés ne passe pas inaperçu, et coupe les ponts avec ses relations : un voisin s'entend accuser de « participer à des messes noires et à des partouzes », une autre se fait traiter de « salope ».


Depuis le printemps 2001, Tilly n'apparaît même plus, se contentant de donner ses ordres à distance : il dresse les uns contre les autres, les force à se surveiller ou se punir mutuellement.


Comme ils ne paient plus leurs impôts, l'administration fiscale saisit les meubles de la propriété  ; Tilly les convainc alors de lui céder tous leurs biens, en mai 2004. À l'extérieur, Jean Marchand tente d'alerter les autorités sur la situation de ses proches, en vain. En février 2008, Philippe de Védrines et Brigitte Loriot-Martin sortent du groupe ; Tilly oblige les neuf parents restant à déménager à Oxford, où il vit : les Védrines sont tombés dans le dénuement, l'ancien obstétricien doit travailler comme jardinier, son épouse Christine est vendeuse chez un traiteur ; leurs salaires alimentent le compte de Tilly.


À Christine de Védrines, qui commence à avoir des doutes grâce à l'aide de son employeur, Tilly fait infliger des « supplices physiques d'une rare cruauté » : elle est attachée sur un tabouret pendant deux semaines et privée de sommeil par ses parents que Tilly a persuadés qu'elle leur cacherait un trésor, « confié par les rois de France aux Védrines »5. En mars 2009, Christine de Védrines est exfiltrée. Son récit des sévices endurés enclenche la machine judiciaire. En octobre, Tilly est interpellé en Suisse et incarcéré à la prison de Gradignan. Fin novembre, une opération est montée en Angleterre par Me Daniel Picotin, l'avocat bordelais de Jean Marchand pour libérer le reste de la famille Védrines4. En juin 2010 Jacques Gonzalez est arrêté : ce personnage effacé, que Tilly présentait comme « le cousin du roi d’Espagne Juan Carlos » et comme le dirigeant d'un organisme 

António Sérgio Rosa de Carvalho by Menno Aardewijn

A long-time friend, knowledgeable about the course of my life, my personality and character decided to make a first study, to later paint a portrait of me in full figure.

My thanks to Menno Aardewijn the author of this study/portrait conceived and achieved in three days, for his friendship and talent.

António Sérgio Rosa de Carvalho / JEEVES / Tweedland.


Wednesday 30 August 2023

Prince Andrew pictured with Prince William and Princess Kate

The Windsors are all about forgiving and forgetting – when it comes to Prince Andrew

Marina Hyde

Some royal rehabilitations are faster than others. The Duke of York’s jaunt with Kate and Wills must have set a new record


Tue 29 Aug 2023 14.44 BST


Do all “fusses” die down eventually, permitting the fussee to return to life largely as they knew it, while the public scratches its head and tries to recall precisely which scandal/multimillion dollar out-of-court settlement/Pizza Express branch it remembers them from? The question arises after the return of Prince Andrew to the royal tableau, driven last weekend by Prince William to church near Balmoral, where the Windsors are currently all gathered (with just the two notable exceptions). I must say I do think that William and Andrew missed a trick not doing carpool karaoke as they rocked up to Crathie Kirk, either to Take That’s Back for Good, or the Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s jailbait classic Young Girl.


Even so, how fitting that this staged sighting should occur on the very weekend crowds of people descended on Scotland in the hope of spying the Loch Ness monster. You can imagine being there when the cry went up. Oh my God – there it is! Look – you can see its head and neck in the front seat, right next to Prince William! Quick, get a photo, even if “friends” will later claim it’s fake because its fingers aren’t chubby enough.


Anyhow: welcome back, Uncle Andy. Typically, royal rehab efforts move at a more glacial pace. For example, the plan to make the British public fall back in love with Prince Charles after his divorce from Princess Diana and her tragic death was slated by courtiers to take years of slow and painstaking image work. But the picture of Andrew being driven last Sunday by William and Kate, the family’s biggest current stars, comes merely one year after the Duke of York finally settled a civil claim against him by Virginia Giuffre. Giuffre was treated as a sex slave by Andrew’s friend, the late international paedo trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, and long alleged that she was sexually assaulted by Andrew three times when she was 17. The duke denies everything, and his reported £12m settlement did not contain an admission of guilt.


And there he was on Sunday, next to William up front, with Kate relegated to creasing her outfit on the back seat. As indicated, these royal stagings are so often wordless scenes, so we don’t know the full story behind this picture. I suppose it’s remotely possible that when the family were having breakfast that morning, Prince William clocked the presence of Prince Andrew and hissed: “You need to spend a very long time in church indeed. In fact, you know what? I’ll drive you there myself.” Possible, but vanishingly unlikely. Andrew was, after all, pictured exiting the church at the same time as the others, instead of lingering for two or three hundred years after.


So this is not some accident, some last-minute instance of Andrew calling shotgun, or of the Waleses suddenly sighing: “OK, fine, jump in the front and we’ll give you a lift.” Please remember that we are dealing with a family widely held to telegraph fantastically complex and significant messages merely by their choice of brooch or jacket colour, which the public is duly invited to parse for meaning. So sticking a disgraced dimwit in the front seat of your car is not just some random thing that happens of a Sunday morning. This is a planned and choreographed moment, with William as the designated driver.


Even so, doing Andrew’s reintegration at Balmoral does feel particularly on the nose. Attendance here connotes the most particular closeness to the royal family’s wellspring of ineffable majesty and authority – which is perhaps why Epstein himself jumped at an invitation to Balmoral back in 1999, when Andrew had him and Ghislaine Maxwell come and visit the castle. This is the version of staying somewhere at Her Majesty’s pleasure that doesn’t involve sewage in your cell or being allowed to take your own life because it would be better all round for your Famous Men WhatsApp group. (And yes, I do know that Jeffrey and Ghislaine were in New York jails so not technically Her Maj’s guests, but you get the point.)


There were probably 500 things Epstein would have objectively preferred doing than yomping round Balmoral, even if 499 of them were illegal. But the frisson of tightness with the royal family was worth journeying to the deck of the famously spartan log cabin on the estate, and posing with Maxwell on the same bench on which the late Queen Elizabeth II was frequently pictured (even if she wasn’t in residence at the castle at the time). Epstein kept the photo of him and Ghislaine at this cabin in his Manhattan mansion, which was eventually raided by police. Thereafter it was presented as evidence in Maxwell’s trial, as part of prosecutors’ attempts to show that she and Epstein were “partners in crime”.


The third wheel on that trip was Prince Andrew himself. Presumably he took the photo? That’s a typical question with those three, with the notorious picture of Andrew with his arm round the hip of the then 17-year-old Virginia Roberts – while Ghislaine smirks in the background – often believed to have been taken by Epstein himself. Quite why the Prince and Princess of Wales wish to form a new photo trio with Uncle Andy is a mystery. But it comes across as the clearest signal that Andrew’s “banishment” from the family is the type we could all live with: one where you get a free mansion, don’t have to work, and all your significant rellies appear to believe your side of the story and are happy enough to give you a helping hand. The comeback will be greater than the setback – or at least of commensurate size.


Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

Monday 28 August 2023

6 years ago: Wildensteins cleared of hiding family fortune


The Inheritance Case That Could Unravel an Art Dynasty


How a widow’s legal fight against the Wildenstein family of France has threatened their storied collection — and revealed the underbelly of the global art market.


By Rachel Corbett

Aug. 23, 2023


Twenty years ago, a glamorous platinum-blond widow arrived at the Paris law office of Claude Dumont Beghi in tears. Someone was trying to take her horses — her “babies” — away, and she needed a lawyer to stop them.


She explained that her late husband was a breeder of champion thoroughbreds. The couple was a familiar sight at the racetracks in Chantilly and Paris: Daniel Wildenstein, gray-suited with a cane in the stands, and Sylvia Roth Wildenstein, a former model with a cigarette dangling from her lips. They first met in 1964, while she was walking couture shows in Paris and he was languishing in a marriage of convenience to a woman from another wealthy Jewish family of art collectors. Daniel, 16 years Sylvia’s senior, already had two grown sons when they met, and he didn’t want more children. So over the next 40 years they spent together, Sylvia cared for the horses as if they were the children she never had. When Daniel died of cancer in 2001, he left her a small stable.


Then, one morning about a year later, Sylvia’s phone rang. It was her horse trainer calling to say that he had spotted something odd in the local racing paper, Paris Turf: The results of Sylvia’s stable were no longer listed under her name. The French journalist Magali Serre’s 2013 book “Les Wildenstein” recounts the scene in great detail: Sylvia ran to fetch her copy and flipped to the page. Sure enough, the stable of “Madame Wildenstein” had been replaced by “Dayton Limited,” an Irish company owned by her stepsons. That’s when she called Dumont Beghi.


To the lawyer’s surprise, Sylvia showed up to their meeting with no proof of ownership for the horses and no information on her late husband’s estate. “She didn’t have any — any — documents at all,” Dumont Beghi says. Sylvia mentioned that she signed some papers shortly after her husband’s death, but she didn’t know what they said, nor did she have copies. “I put that in the corner of my mind,” Dumont Beghi says.


Why would a widow draped in diamonds and furs have no records from her wealthy husband’s estate? Dumont Beghi got the feeling there was more going on than a dispute over horses. But she went ahead and gave Sylvia the good news: She could simply decline to transfer the horses to her stepsons. Dumont Beghi sent a letter, halting the transaction.


Dumont Beghi recalls an almost instant kinship with Sylvia, who discovered that they were both Scorpios and lived in the same building complex in the posh 16th Arrondissement. After Dumont Beghi saved her horses, Sylvia trusted her completely, and she began to explain to Dumont Beghi the complexity of the situation. Daniel had fallen into a coma for 10 days before he died, and while he was under, his sons, Alec and Guy, showed up at the hospital along with lawyers from Switzerland, the United States and France. She recounted how, a few weeks after the funeral, her driver took her to the family’s 18th-century hôtel particulier, which housed an art research center, the Wildenstein Institute. Her stepsons told her she needed to hear something important. They had reviewed their father’s estate and discovered that he died in financial ruin. As his next of kin, Sylvia was about to inherit debts so large they would ruin her too.


Sylvia was stunned. She had never heard anything about money troubles from her husband. For 40 years, she had lived with chefs and chauffeurs, in at least five homes on three continents. But what did she know? She never signed the checks. Daniel, intellectual and rigid, ran the business, while Sylvia, who was light and cheerful, played the nurturer in the family. She was known to dote on Alec and Guy’s six children, whom she considered her grandkids. She trusted her stepsons completely, so when they told her that she must renounce her inheritance at once or face “catastrophe,” she didn’t blink. “I signed all the papers they presented to me. I signed, signed, signed” — even the ones written in Japanese, she later told Serre. They promised to take care of her financially and even offered to pay her 30,000 euros a month out of their own pockets. Sylvia was grateful.


But then, over the next few months, the reality of what she had done set in. Sylvia told Dumont Beghi how movers came to her apartment and took a beloved Pierre Bonnard painting off the wall. Then they came back for the furniture, because, she was told, it belonged to her husband’s business, which was now run by his sons. A letter came notifying her that Daniel’s 69 thoroughbreds were now owned by Guy and Alec’s stable. Her household staff stopped being paid. Soon, her stepsons told her she would have to move from her home on Avenue Montaigne to another apartment. (Alec died in 2008; Guy declined a request for an interview, though a representative answered some questions provided by The Times.)


She stopped receiving invitations to celebrate holidays and birthdays at the family’s ranch in Kenya or their castle in France. Guy shipped back her clothes and belongings from their British Virgin Islands compound, where she had vacationed for years with Daniel and their chef and pastry chef. As Sylvia spoke, two things became increasingly apparent to Dumont Beghi: One, Sylvia had renounced her inheritance. “She had no freedom.” she says, and “no proof. Not a shred of evidence.” No bank account, no income, no independence. It was as if “she died at the same time as her husband,” Dumont Beghi says.


The other thing that struck her was that the Wildensteins were more than merely rich.


“When she first came to me, I didn’t know anything about the family,” Dumont Beghi told me when I visited her this past winter at her office in Paris. To my left, a bronze bust of a panther stared from a pedestal at eye level. Behind her glass desk hung a print of a leopard prowling in a tree. Dumont Beghi is also the personal attorney for President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, who is widely considered a strongman, and often describes herself as a lone warrior woman in a jungle of male adversaries. She had never heard of the Wildenstein dynasty of art dealers. In fact, outside elite niches of the art world, few had, which was how Daniel wanted it. Dumont Beghi was about to find out why.



First, she drew up a list of known assets, which soon zigzagged into a chart of far-flung bank accounts, trusts and shell corporations. Over the course of several years, she would fly around the world to tax havens and free ports, prying open the armored vaults and anonymous accounts that mask many of the high-end transactions in the $68 billion global art market. Multimillion-dollar paintings can anonymously trade hands without, for example, any of the requisite titles or deeds of real estate transactions or the public disclosures required on Wall Street. She would learn that the inscrutability of the trade has made it a leading conduit for sanction-evading oligarchs and other billionaires looking to launder excess capital. The Wildensteins were not just masters of this system — they helped pioneer it.


Over 150 years, the family has amassed an art collection estimated to be worth billions by quietly buying up troves of European masterpieces that would be at home in the Louvre or the Vatican, holding their stock for generations and never revealing what they own. When Sylvia realized the magnitude of her stepsons’ deception, she devoted the rest of her life to unraveling the family’s financial machinations, and even left a will asking that Dumont Beghi continue her fight from beyond the grave.


Sylvia and her lawyer were never able to win the settlement they thought she deserved while she was alive. From the start, in 2004, a judge rejected Dumont Beghi’s attempt to cancel Sylvia’s renunciation of the inheritance; a few years later, a court rejected a subsequent claim that she was entitled to €450 million worth of art and assets, a figure the judge called “pharaonic.” The representative for Guy notes that, early on, Sylvia was awarded approximately €15 million, based on the value of Daniel’s French estate. “Dumont Beghi continued to litigate for several years, seeking to have certain trusts settled by Daniel Wildenstein included in the estate,” the representative says. “During this protracted litigation, Dumont Beghi made numerous, unsubstantiated allegations, but the court ultimately ruled against her client.”


Now, more than a decade after Sylvia’s death, their efforts have landed the Wildensteins before France’s highest court. The evidence she and Dumont Beghi brought forth has persuaded prosecutors that the Wildensteins are a criminal enterprise, responsible for operating, as a prosecutor for the state once put it, “the longest and the most sophisticated tax fraud” in modern French history.


A trial this September will determine if the family and their associates owe a gargantuan tax bill. The last time prosecutors went after the Wildensteins, several years ago, they sought €866 million — €616 million in back taxes and a €250 million fine, as well as jail time for Guy. The consequences could do more than topple the family’s art empire. The case has provided an unusual view of how the ultrawealthy use the art market to evade taxes, and sometimes worse. Agents raiding Wildenstein vaults have turned up artworks long reported as missing, which fueled speculation that the family may have owned Nazi-looted or otherwise stolen art, and spurred a number of other lawsuits against the family in recent years. Financial distortions have saved the family hundreds of millions of dollars, prosecutors allege, but their treatment of Sylvia could cost them far more — and perhaps lead to the unraveling of their dynasty.


In order to prove that Alec and Guy misled Sylvia about her husband’s estate, Dumont Beghi first needed to know what assets they did report. But because Sylvia had renounced her inheritance, she didn’t even have a right to that information. “Every deed, every bank statement, every inventory item in the estate and every document related to the succession of Daniel Wildenstein is in the hands of Guy and Alec,” Dumont Beghi says, and they did not intend to turn them over.


Dumont Beghi’s first step, then, was to ask a court to nullify the agreement Sylvia signed giving up her inheritance. Only then could she access details about Daniel’s estate. Fortunately, she had a compelling precedent to show the judge. Sylvia wasn’t the first wife the Wildensteins had tried to cut off by pleading poverty: Jocelyne Wildenstein, Alec’s first wife, was similarly cut out of the family’s fortune during her 1999 divorce, with Alec claiming he was an unpaid personal assistant to his father. Documents revealed at court in New York — where the couple primarily lived — valued the family’s art collection at about $10 billion. The judge in the case said that Alec’s income statement “insults the intelligence of the court”; he settled for a rumored $3.8 billion — which would be the largest divorce settlement in New York history. (Jocelyne denies that the settlement was $3.8 billion but did concede that it was “huge.”)


Dumont Beghi argued that if the family was worth billions then, there was reason to doubt that Daniel, who orchestrated the deal between Alec and Jocelyne, died in ruinous debt just two years later. The French court ordered Guy and Alec to hand over the declaration of Daniel’s estate. It included some properties in France, a few cars, paintings and bank accounts, altogether totaling €42 million. Dumont Beghi didn’t believe that figure was anywhere near the estate’s true value, but still, “It’s not nothing, for someone who died broke.” And it showed, Dumont Beghi concluded, that Sylvia had renounced her inheritance under false pretenses.


Dumont Beghi’s next move was to get her hands on Daniel’s medical records. She learned that he spent his final days in an unresponsive, vegetative coma — and yet apparently signed a contract selling his 69 thoroughbreds (including Sylvia’s) to his sons for a bargain price. In 2005, a court granted Sylvia’s request to nullify her renunciation. It was only the beginning of what Dumont Beghi has called her international “treasure hunt” for every stashed masterpiece, undeclared property and offshore account left out of Daniel’s estate.


Her next order of business was to locate Sylvia’s beloved Bonnard nude, a gift from Daniel that his sons had removed from her wall. Dumont Beghi knew it was included in a trust that Daniel had set up for his wife in the Bahamas, but when she asked the trustee for information about its contents, management and regulations, she received no response.


Dumont Beghi decided to do her own research on Daniel’s collection of Bonnards. She learned from his memoir, “Marchands d’Art,” published two years before his death, that he considered their acquisition “the biggest coup” of his life. When Bonnard died in 1947, he left behind an enormous estate of some 700 paintings and thousands of drawings. Daniel learned that all of it was set to be inherited by three estranged nieces-in-law of the artist, and it gave him an idea. He approached another Bonnard relative who Daniel believed could also lay claim to the estate and told the man he would pay him $1 million to buy his inheritance rights. Then he armed the man with a “battalion” of lawyers to fight on his behalf.


After more than a decade in court, Daniel walked away with nearly 500 paintings; the nieces were left with just 25. (Daniel promised them some more to prevent further litigation.) In his memoir, Daniel revealed that he still owned 180 Bonnard paintings — and not just any Bonnards but “the most beautiful. The most magnificent.” He added that the great Bonnards were worth between $5 million and $7 million each. (Today they can sell for twice that.)


Dumont Beghi flew to the Bahamas to find out what other paintings by the artist Daniel may have left for Sylvia. She received a court order to open up the trust and found that Daniel had bequeathed no fewer than 19 Bonnards to her client. Though the trust was nominally in the Bahamas, the Bonnards were being held at the Geneva free port, a prisonlike complex of high-security storage facilities that is said to contain more art than the Louvre.


Independent of any national jurisdiction, free ports allow traders to ship and store property without paying taxes or customs duties. If a dealer buys a painting in one country, he can ship it to a free port without paying import taxes; then, when he is offered the right price, he can sell it there too, without paying capital gains. It has been estimated that $100 billion worth of art and collectibles are held in the Geneva free port alone, to say nothing of those in Zurich, Luxembourg, Singapore, Monaco, Delaware or Beijing.


Dumont Beghi flew to the Geneva free port, which is the size of 22 soccer fields, along with an appraiser to examine the Bonnards in person. Bonnard is “light,” Daniel wrote of his favorite artist, who is known above all for his radiant use of color. But when Dumont Beghi descended two flights down into the gloomy bunker, she found the paintings locked behind an armored door, including Sylvia’s “Pink Nude in the Bath,” its warm glow extinguished in the dark.


An acquaintance in the art world explained to Dumont Beghi that hundreds, if not thousands, of Wildenstein works are held in museums, but that the labels often identify their owners simply as “private collection.” So she wrote to the major museums — the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Prado — to ask whether Daniel Wildenstein ever lent or donated works to them. Surprisingly, she says, a few wrote back. The National Gallery in London told her that Daniel lent it valuable paintings by Poussin and Boucher. The Prado had recently bought a Velázquez portrait from Wildenstein & Co Inc. for €23 million.


Then Dumont Beghi made perhaps the most important stop of her tour: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she stood before a painting she loved, Caravaggio’s late masterpiece “The Lute Player,” labeled on loan from a “private collection.” She searched the New York State Department’s records to see whether Wildenstein & Co. had ever borrowed money using works in its collection as collateral. Dozens of names were listed — Cézanne, David, Degas, Manet, Monet, Matisse, Rembrandt, Picasso and Rodin among them. And then there it was: “The Lute Player,” valued at upward of $100 million.


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At that point she realized, “The company is titanic.”


“In my family, we have elevated discretion to the level of muteness,” Daniel wrote in his memoir. “We do not speak. We don’t tell. We don’t talk about one another.”


This code of omertà has been the governing principle of the Wildenstein art dynasty since its founding five generations ago. A dealer “is not allowed to talk about his stock,” Daniel said. “Why? Because it’s the stuff of dreams. Every art dealer must maintain the illusion of the masterpieces he owns or does not own.” Many believed that his grandfather, the founding patriarch Nathan Wildenstein, for example, owned 10 Vermeers; he actually had just one. No one knows today whether the family still owns it, and that question is meaningful to art history. Experts believe Vermeer made about three dozen paintings in his life, and as many as nine could be missing.


A tailor from Alsace, Nathan had no training in art when, in the 1870s, a client asked him to sell some artwork she owned. He “holed himself up in the Louvre” for 10 days, according to Daniel, and came out a believer. He sold the art and used the 1,000 francs he earned to buy two more pictures, by the Rococo artists François Boucher and Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, which he resold. At the time, Nathan could afford 17th- and 18th-century French art because no one else wanted it, so he amassed passé — but to his eye, beautiful — paintings. He began dressing in embroidered waistcoats and top hats to pitch collectors and critics.


Soon Nathan was selling his taste to Rothschilds and Rockefellers, in Europe and the United States. While Nathan was grooming his young grandson to enter the family business, he took him to see a silent film about a man who wore a hat that everyone initially mocked; by the end of the movie, the whole town was wearing one. Nathan explained to Daniel that this was their family’s calling: “Find the guy’s hat and wear it before the others.” For Nathan, that hat was French art of the 18th century: Fragonard, Watteau, David. These are now among the most famous names in art history, but at the time they were synonymous with the French Revolution and the aristocrats it overthrew — a period the public wanted to put behind them, especially as they began to embrace the avant-garde era of Impressionism.


In 1905, Nathan bought an hôtel particulier in the center of Paris to house Wildenstein & Co. He expanded into Renaissance art and Impressionism and, when his son, Georges — Daniel’s father — was old enough to join the business, a bit of Modernism. Nathan bought a space down the street for Georges and his friend Paul Rosenberg to set up a small operation. The pair gave two of its floors to Picasso, whom they agreed, in 1918, to pay a generous salary in exchange for first pick of the artist’s works. Georges installed a red telephone in his office that had two direct lines: one connected to Rosenberg, the other to Picasso’s studio.


Upon Nathan’s death in 1934, Georges steered the family into an era of unprecedented prosperity by building an infrastructure around his artists’ markets. He organized exhibitions, edited an art journal and published definitive catalogs of works by artists in his inventory — Ingres, Fragonard, Chardin. (Daniel would later do the same with Monet, Manet and Gauguin.) The books were well respected and helped market their artists to museums. They also gave the family final say over authentication questions. Today anyone who thinks he or she owns a Monet that’s not in the Wildenstein book needs a nonprofit co-founded by Guy to sign off on it. (When the Wildenstein Institute handled the authentications directly, it developed a reputation for being unaccommodating.)


But Georges’s ruthless instincts also contributed to the “dark aura,” as one dealer put it, that would come to surround the Wildenstein name. Hitler’s personal curator told an Allied intelligence agent in an interrogation after the war that Georges did brisk business with the Nazis after fleeing to Provence, in the unoccupied zone. Once there, he helped the Germans locate important collections in occupied France in exchange for sparing his own. Profits from his newly “aryanized” gallery in Paris were said to be sent to New York, where he had opened a branch. (The representative for Guy denies this.)


Other art-dealing dynasties have since sprung up in the Wildenstein mold. They buy up huge quantities of blue-chip art and store it for years, until they effectively corner their own niches of the market and control the prices. The billionaire Nahmad brothers and their sons, based among London, New York and Monaco, reportedly bought more works by Picasso than any other family in the world (except the Picassos) and, for the most part, have locked them up in the Geneva free port for years while they accumulate value. The Mugrabi family of Pop Art dealer-collectors, led by its patriarch, Jose Mugrabi, and his two sons, have done the same with Andy Warhol, stockpiling some 1,000 works by the artist and keeping prices high by bidding his art up at auction, even if they don’t intend to buy. (The Mugrabi family did not respond to a request for comment.)


Those who complain that the art market today operates more like the stock market often blame these families, who shifted a value system once driven by connoisseurship to one based on the law of scarcity. (“Monet and Picasso are like Microsoft and Coca-Cola,” David Nahmad once said.) Their dominance derives from the fact that they’re family firms, bolstered by internal secrecy, pride and lifetimes of experience. As the Wildensteins proved, families can be structured like corporations, where the profit principle governs even relationships and succession plans. The few people who seem capable of undoing them are themselves. For the Wildensteins, the weight of the family legacy seems to have cracked the younger generations.


Even though Daniel described Georges as a “bad father,” he parented his own children in similarly severe ways. He enforced his father’s business tactics — extreme secrecy, consolidation of wealth in the bloodline — as laws of family life, too. Daniel tried to seclude his two children, Alec and Guy, at home and unmarried, to protect the family from publicity and divorce. They lived as if in another era — the French 18th century — with opulent floral décor, heavy drapes and footmen who stood behind their chairs during meals. As children, Guy and Alec commuted to the Lycée Français de New York by limousine, and they rarely had a play date. Alec was forbidden to play sports and attend university, Guy was prevented from pursuing acting and both were required to learn their father’s trade. Daniel was particularly strict with Alec, his elder son. According to a 1998 Vanity Fair article, he started taking Alec to brothels at age 15 in the hope that he would find prostitutes a satisfying alternative to a wife. When Alec defied his father and married Jocelyne, he did so secretly in Las Vegas with no guests. Eventually, Daniel’s sons and wives and children all lived together in his New York townhouse.


Those who know Daniel have said that he infantilized and humiliated his sons and that they’ve gone on to treat the women in their lives similarly. Guy, Sylvia believed, was jealous of Daniel and took it out on her; Alec blamed Jocelyne for the humiliating headlines generated by their divorce. (The New York Post dubbed her the “Bride of Wildenstein” for her apparently extensive plastic surgeries.) Alec, who wore bold pinstripe suits, was the flashier brother; Guy kept a lower profile but played on the Diables Bleus polo team with aristocratic friends, like the future King Charles III, the godfather of his eldest child. Colleagues remember that the brothers would sit quietly in meetings. Guy married a Swedish model named Kristina Hansson, who has never appeared in a tabloid. In fact, he once boasted that “hardly anyone knows what my wife looks like.” So when Daniel died in 2001, Guy was the clear successor to the family art empire, while Alec took over the horse business.


Guy, who is now 77, is the family’s patriarch and president of Wildenstein & Co. But mounting lawsuits and scandals have begun to drag him down. So far he has avoided any serious consequences — a fact some critics attribute to well-positioned friends like former President Nicolas Sarkozy or to the fortune at his disposal for defense counsel. But now that the family is on trial, Guy, it seems, may have taken the legacy of silence too far. The Wildenstein policy to preserve confidentiality at any cost may ultimately expose the family’s secrets.


In 2009, after a long string of setbacks, Dumont Beghi had a breakthrough. Over the years she had sent Liouba Wildenstein, Alec’s second wife, multiple summonses for information about the family’s assets. Unsurprisingly, she ignored them. But after Alec died of prostate cancer at age 67 in 2008, Liouba, a former model from Russia, found herself in trouble. According to Serre’s book, Alec owed €12 million in back taxes, and his father’s estate was still tied up in litigation with Sylvia. Guy offered to lend Liouba the money to help pay his brother’s debt — all she had to do in return was give him access to a trust Alec had set up for her, supposedly so Guy could reimburse himself later. But after the deal was done, Serre’s book recounts, Guy didn’t pay Liouba the millions he promised. He sent only small, sporadic sums — not enough to pay her tax bill or to live on. Liouba found herself in a situation much like Sylvia’s: cut out from the family, with no money and no recourse. (The representative for Guy says that he did issue the loan.)


That’s when Dumont Beghi’s phone rang. Liouba had finally decided to answer her third summons. She told me recently that she felt she had no choice but to take action: “Many women in the family had to fight for their rights,” she said. “The women want to be respected.” Twenty-four hours later, a lawyer would deliver Dumont Beghi dozens of documents that Liouba had found on Alec’s personal computer — contracts and letters about the family’s expansive network of offshore trusts — which would reveal what Dumont Beghi and Sylvia had long believed without being able to definitively prove.


The documents mapped how the Wildensteins had structured their patrimony, and hidden their wealth, for generations. Daniel’s estate, Dumont Beghi learned, included several hundred artworks — including the 180 Bonnards, hundreds of 16th- and 17th-century French paintings and dozens of works by old masters including Caravaggio, Velázquez and Fra Angelico. Then there was the real estate: multiple homes and buildings across France and the United States, the 58,000-acre ranch in Kenya and the 18-acre Virgin Islands compound. There was a Gulfstream IV jet, a yacht and the thoroughbred stable, which was registered to multiple intermediaries in England and Ireland. The art was held in shell companies and trusts in tax havens, including two previously unknown entities in the Cayman Islands and Guernsey. These were “operational structures specializing in tax evasion,” Dumont Beghi wrote, which also helped the family shield assets from divorce. (The representative for Guy disputes the accuracy of this recounting of the estate.)


According to Dumont Beghi, two trusts named Sylvia as a beneficiary, something Sylvia said she was unaware of. Also revealed was a letter from Guy and Alec’s Swiss lawyer seeking to remove Sylvia as beneficiary from one of the trusts. Investigators also discovered $250 million in art that Daniel had apparently ordered airlifted out of the United States while he was in his coma. (The representative for Guy denies that this is true, calling it “illogical.”)


Dumont Beghi rapidly began to issue new summonses and build an appeal for a review. But time was running out. Sylvia had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which was spreading. She was running out of resources, too. “I have no more money,” Serre recounted her saying. “This procedure has brought me to my knees.” She had paid more than €10 million in legal fees over the past eight years and had resorted to pawning her jewelry and relying on help from wealthy friends. In her final interview, she said of her stepsons, “They robbed me, and now they are waiting for me to die.”


Dumont Beghi continued on, believing that Sylvia was entitled to a settlement of $300 million. She filed a new criminal complaint against Guy and the heirs of Alec — his two children and Liouba — as well as their business associates, using the new information she had received. To her surprise, this time the government responded. The police raided the Wildenstein Institute and the family’s apartments on a court order to identify any assets that might have been concealed from Sylvia. In the basement, officers discovered vaults filled with hundreds of drawings, paintings and sculptures. Some of the frames were inscribed with swastikas.


Officers seized about 30 lost works by the likes of Degas and Berthe Morisot. Some had been reported stolen by a Jewish family during the war, and others were reported lost by families who had involved Daniel in the management of their estates. Guy pleaded ignorance: He never inspected that vault. And who could prove otherwise? The family took such pains to protect their inventory that no one knows what they really have, perhaps not even them. (The Wildensteins were cleared in one of the lost-painting suits; Guy has said that the Morisot may have been put there as a result of an oversight.)


Dumont Beghi’s involvement in the Wildenstein affair officially ended on Nov. 8, 2010, when she called Sylvia for the last time to wish her a happy 77th birthday. Five days later, Sylvia died at home in Paris. She was buried in the Wildenstein tomb next to her husband, but Guy had her maiden name, Roth, etched into the marble tombstone. Without a client, Dumont Beghi’s case was closed for good.


But the lawsuit was far from over for Guy, as the state picked up where Dumont Beghi left off. She had mapped for the government the global system through which the family moved money among nine companies registered in Ireland, four trusts on three islands, a handful of galleries and real estate companies and bank accounts in at least four countries, possibly depriving the French public of hundreds of millions of euros. In addition to the Swiss free port and the Paris vault, they had art in a nuclear bunker in the Catskills, a former fire station in New York and many other far-flung places. “I mean, there are pictures I have never seen that my great-grandfather bought,” Alec told Vanity Fair in 1998. They were, he said, “in vaults and crazy places, in back of other things.”


Over the next decade, the Wildenstein tax case wound its way through the French courts. At the same time, public outrage over tax loopholes for the wealthy was growing, and the government passed what is popularly known as the Wildenstein law to crack down on tax evasion via foreign trusts. Still, the family won two controversial acquittals, first in 2017 and then again in 2018.


But then, two years ago, France’s attorney general and tax authorities brought concerns about the decision to acquit the Wildensteins of tax fraud and money laundering to the Court of Cassation, France’s highest civil and criminal court. The lead judge in the 2017 case had said that the family displayed a “clear intention” to hide their wealth, but the tribunal let them off because, at the time, foreign trusts fell into a legal gray area. In reopening the case, the Court of Cassation disagreed, saying the lower court “disregarded” the facts.


“It’s really uncommon,” Dumont Beghi says of the upcoming retrial. She believes the path to victory will be much tougher for Guy and his co-defendants this time. Prosecutors will argue that the Wildensteins were, in fact, required to report their foreign trusts at the time of Daniel’s death, and later Alec’s. They also contend that the trustees improperly took orders from the family in violation of the rules of irrevocable trusts, which must be independently managed.


The extreme lengths to which the family went to obscure their wealth led French media to dub them “the Impressionists of finance.” But in reality many of their practices are commonplace in high levels of the art trade, which a 2020 U.S. Senate subcommittee called the “largest legal, unregulated market.” Unlike financial institutions, art businesses are not expressly subject to the Bank Secrecy Act, which requires firms to verify customers’ identities, report large cash transactions and flag suspicious activity. A study from the U.S. Department of the Treasury last year cited a figure estimating that money laundering and other financial crimes in the art market may amount to about $3 billion a year. (Britain and the European Union, however, have implemented anti-money-laundering regulations that require stricter due diligence in art transactions there.)


According to a report by Art Basel and UBS, auction houses did about $31 billion in sales last year. They say that they know who their clients are, but those may just be the names of art advisers or other intermediaries. And collectors’ insistence on anonymity, long framed as genteel discretion, hasn’t budged. The buyer of the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, Leonardo da Vinci’s $450.3 million “Salvator Mundi,” registered at Christie’s a day before bidding with a $100 million down payment, identifying himself as one of 5,000 princes in Saudi Arabia. A few weeks later, it was revealed that the true buyer was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who was reportedly displaying the painting on his superyacht — and that a little-known cousin of his bought it as a proxy. It was billed by Christie’s as the “last Leonardo da Vinci painting in private hands,” but it’s only the “last” Leonardo until someone reveals another one, like the Madonna and child the Wildensteins sold in 1999 to an anonymous collector, who is still believed to own it.


For a business that routinely transacts in secrecy jurisdictions, literally in the dark and underground, scarcity can be manufactured, and value is dictated by whatever someone is willing to pay. “A client’s privacy should be an art dealer’s primary concern,” Daniel wrote, calling it a matter of “respect.” But secrecy is also a core competitive advantage in a profession predicated on insider knowledge — a model the Wildensteins themselves relied on. The gallery kept a legendarily detailed directory of where every coveted painting in the world was located using intelligence sometimes gathered by spying on rival dealers — even, one competitor alleged, tapping phones. That system of ultra-insular knowledge and extreme scarcity is why, today, the dealers who bought “Salvator Mundi” for $1,175 at a New Orleans auction house were able to resell it for a reputed $80 million, and then, in the span of five years, see it flipped for $127.5 million to the collector who ultimately sold it to the Saudis for the record-breaking $450 million.


Younger dynasties like the Mugrabis and Nahmads have similarly been accused of strategically obscuring ownership of their assets to shield them from divorce or other legal claims. When a Frenchman accused the Nahmads of possessing a Modigliani painting, once estimated to be worth up to $25 million, that Nazis looted from his grandfather, they said it was owned by a company called International Art Center. A couple years later, the Panama Papers revealed that David Nahmad owns International Art Center, a holding company whose assets are stored in Geneva. (A representative for the Nahmad Collection says the case has “no merit.”)


“Many of these very wealthy families do sort of act like cartels,” says Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer who recovers lost art. “We’re still dealing with these Nazi-looted-art cases because the art market hoped they would outlast the heirs.” The Wildensteins, too, he says, have handled “problematic” pictures, though none that he is currently pursuing are in their possession. Whenever he asks the family for information that might aid in his search for stolen pictures, they take a very long time to respond, he says, and are reluctant to provide information. “They’re just looking the other way,” he says. “It’s just this unwillingness to lift a finger and do anything.”


I met Dumont Beghi once more in New York, where she had come to visit galleries with her son, an artist and designer. At a windy table outside Harry Cipriani’s food hall on the Upper West Side, she told me that she plans to attend every day of the Wildenstein trial this fall. It will finally mark the end of the defining case of her career. “It’s my professional life, it’s my personal life,” she said. “I start something, I finish it. I will go every day. I want to see it through.”


Her long entanglement in the case created legal troubles for her too. Guy Wildenstein sued her for defamation in 2016. A few years later, she was convicted of tax fraud and money laundering for depositing $5.1 million she received from Sylvia in an undisclosed HSBC account in New York. She is currently pursuing a partial appeal and has suggested that the $5.1 million was a “customary gift.” (Guy dropped the defamation suit two years ago.)


In 2012, Dumont Beghi published a book about her seven years on the case, “L’Affaire Wildenstein.” In the opening lines, she describes it as “a story of two women alone facing the establishment,” run by privileged and powerful men like the Wildensteins — “a universe where women are omitted.” Some have questioned whether Dumont Beghi was really representing her client’s best interests in pursuing the costly, yearslong battle. But regardless of her motives, it’s obvious that the saga has become personal for her. Her eyes welled up when she spoke of Sylvia’s death. “She wanted the world to know that as a woman she wanted to be respected.” She described tax fraud as a crime that disproportionately deprives women. This is what she and Sylvia were fighting for. “It may be hard to understand the depth of our relationship,” she told me.


With a potential billion-dollar guillotine hanging over its neck, the house of Wildenstein is in unprecedented peril. Even before this latest legal trouble, its influence waned for years as the market for the historical art it sells declined, and museums are by now fully stocked. As Daniel reached his eighth decade, he started waking up in the mornings asking himself, “How long are we going to last?” The profession his family dominated for most of the 20th century had been overtaken by a new guard of contemporary-art dealers selling status baubles to Wall Street millionaires. These collectors weren’t interested in Rococo or Neoclassical art; they were spending millions on living stars like Damien Hirst, whose market the advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi has dominated since he bought up vast quantities of the artist’s early work. Daniel tried to get in on the frenzy by forming a joint venture with Pace Gallery in 1993. But its contemporary clients generally didn’t convert to Impressionism or old-master collectors, and vice versa. “It was a mistake,” Pace’s founder, Arne Glimcher, told me. “I think we did it because we were so flattered.” Pace bought back its shares plus inventory from Guy in 2011.


Now the family appears to be liquidating some assets. In 2020, Guy and his wife put their Tudor estate in Millbrook, N.Y., which they spent a reported $50 million renovating, on the market for $20 million. Around the same time, their son, David, and his wife, the jewelry heiress Lucrezia Buccellati Wildenstein, listed their Connecticut equestrian compound for $6.9 million. The Virgin Islands property is up for sale, too, for $48 million. In 2016, while facing his initial tax trial in Paris, Guy listed his Sutton Square townhouse in Manhattan — Corcoran blurred the paintings on the walls, naturally — for nearly $40 million, only to finally offer it at a loss in March for $29.5 million. “I see the end of this empire,” the old-masters expert Eric Turquin says. “The organization is too heavy for a market that has shrunk. The market is one-tenth of what it used to be for 18th-century French art.”


Some market insiders have noticed that the family seems to be selling off more art lately, too. Though paintings are often sold at auction anonymously, provenance histories can reveal ownership information. In the past two years or so, “they sold a lot of paintings at auction, at Christie’s, not under their own name,” says Robert Simon, one of the old-masters dealers who rediscovered “Salvator Mundi.” “But when they’re cataloged, you can see that they’re shown by Wildenstein in previous shows or were acquired here and there.” He adds, “And then they’ve kind of shed their staff as well.” The mass liquidation of assets suggests that the family could be anticipating a large expenditure, like an overdue tax bill.


In 1932, Georges Wildenstein hired the society architect Horace Trumbauer to design the family’s majestic limestone gallery on East 64th Street, with marble floors, gilded wood paneling and lead vaults. “It was the grandest gallery in New York,” Simon says, recalling the heavy drapes the Wildensteins would pull back to reveal paintings to clients. It’s where they sold one of Raphael’s most treasured Madonnas, Caillebotte’s iconic cityscape “Paris Street; Rainy Day” and Cezanne’s largest and most lyrical “Bathers.”


Guy’s son, David, who is vice president of Wildenstein & Co., has described the building as “the soul of this company and the soul of this family.” Yet he helped sell it in 2017 for $79.8 million, then the highest price ever paid for a townhouse in New York. The contemporary-art gallery LGDR has since taken occupancy of the space while Wildenstein & Co. has moved into a 15-story commercial building in Midtown, open by appointment only. “It’s like an office,” one dealer told me. “A small office.”


Source photographs for illustration at the top: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images; Bernard Gourier/Associated Press. Source photographs of Daniel and Alec Wildenstein in 1965: John Orris/The New York Times. Source photographs of Dumont Beghi: Joel Saget/AFP, via Getty Images.


Rachel Corbett is a journalist in New York and the author of “You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.” Her next book, about criminal profiling, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.

Sunday 27 August 2023

REMEMBERING: Duncan Hannah, Artist and ’70s Chronicler, Dies at 69 / VIDEO: Artist Duncan Hannah recalls New York in the 70s in new book


Duncan Hannah, Artist and ’70s Chronicler, Dies at 69


He immersed himself in the wild New York scene of Warhol and CBGB, then emerged in the ’80s as a respected painter.


Neil Genzlinger

By Neil Genzlinger

Published June 15, 2022

Updated June 16, 2022


Duncan Hannah, who immersed himself in the boisterous art-and-club scene of 1970s New York — vividly documenting it in a 2018 book drawn from diaries he kept — and then in the 1980s became a well-regarded artist himself, died on Saturday at his home in Cornwall, Conn. He was 69.


His wife, Megan Wilson, said the cause was a heart attack.


As an artist, Mr. Hannah was known for scenes that evoked old films and old Europe and that owed a debt to Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer, whom he admired. But they also had a vaguely eerie quality. Michael Kimmelman, reviewing an exhibition of Mr. Hannah’s work at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York for The New York Times in 1988, was struck by a painting called “News of the World.”


“Against a beautiful mauve-pink-gray sky, a boy carries a newspaper through a nearly empty town,” Mr. Kimmelman wrote. “The place is at once ordinary and totally unreal. This is the heart of Mr. Hannah’s terrain — a curious, half-dream, half-nightmare landscape just on the edge of no place.”


 Barry Blinderman was director of the Semaphore and Semaphore East galleries in Manhattan at the time and was among the first to exhibit Mr. Hannah.


“When I exhibited his paintings throughout the 1980s,” he said by email, “a wide audience responded to their dreamy teleportation to a time of innocence, their Cézannesque brushstrokes, their sense of mystery.”


Many artists were exploring abstraction at the time, and some critics, Mr. Hannah admitted, didn’t seem to get what he was doing.


“They just assumed I was being ironic and this was some kind of critique of art history, which it wasn’t,” he told “CBS This Morning” in 2018. “It was more of a love letter to art history.”


Mr. Blinderman watched as Mr. Hannah’s style gradually attracted a following.


“It took a while before the cognoscenti acknowledged the work’s criticality — its deadpan delivery of displacement through the lens of film, its ‘learned irony,’ as termed by Times critic John Russell,” he said, referring to a 1983 review in The Times. “Duncan now stands at his easel beside Balthus, Hopper, Bonnard and Sickert.”


Before he broke through as an artist, Mr. Hannah was — as he himself would surely have acknowledged — the very definition of a “scene-maker,” logging time at CBGB and other hot clubs and hanging with the Warhol crowd.


“I’ve always been interested in scenes,” he told The Times in 2016, when his artworks were being exhibited at New Release, a gallery in Chinatown. “Even scenes that aren’t mine, like Swinging London, the Beat scene or Paris in the ’20s. So when I got to New York, I wanted to find the scene or make the scene. Whatever was going on, I wanted to find the center of it. And I still do, I suppose.”


He was a distinctive figure in those years, sometimes working a dapper, attention-getting look that one writer described as “a Bogart-style trench coat and tightly knotted tie amid a sea of torn T-shirts and safety-pinned leather jackets.”


He seemed to be everywhere, yet he found time to keep diaries, from which he drew to create one of the livelier and more explicit portraits of that time and place, “20th Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies” (2018). The book is anecdote-rich and full of famous names: Mr. Hannah told of finding himself in a limousine with Warhol, Bryan Ferry and David Bowie; of visiting a friend’s apartment, finding the singer Nico there and making her a cocktail; of repelling an unwanted proposition from Allen Ginsberg. It’s also full of 1970s excesses.


Anna Sui, the acclaimed fashion designer, was, like Mr. Hannah, a native of the Midwest who navigated her way to New York. For a time she lived on the same Manhattan block as Mr. Hannah, frequently attending parties at his place.


“We escaped middle-class suburbia in the Midwest for the ’70s New York underground and lived out our fantasies of rock stars and movie heroes,” Ms. Sui said by email. “Duncan was the prettiest, most stylish and cool guy around during the CBGB’s days.”


In the preface to his book, Mr. Hannah reflected on his immersion in the wild ’70s scene.


“Our quest for authenticity and experience led us in colorful directions,” he wrote. “We had faith in the journey, even if we were unsure of the destination.”


Duncan Rathbun Hannah was born on Aug. 21, 1952, in Minneapolis. His father, James, was a lawyer, and his mother, Rosemary (Rathbun) Hannah, was an interior decorator. He had already begun keeping a journal when he graduated from high school in Minneapolis, and the entries reveal a young man eager to broaden his horizons.


“I’ve been accepted to Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, so it’s the East Coast for me next fall,” he wrote. “I’ll put myself in odd situations. I won’t avoid challenges, I will uncover my true grit. I’ll exhaust my resources and keep pushing through.”


He arrived in New York in 1971 and after two years at Bard transferred to the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, graduating in 1975.


His activities in the 1970s included appearing in two underground films directed by Amos Poe, both of which also starred Debbie Harry of Blondie: “Unmade Beds” (1976) and “The Foreigner” (1978). He made a handful of other film appearances, but in the “CBS This Morning” interview years later, he acknowledged that his strengths were in other areas.


“I realized appreciating good acting and executing good acting are two very different things,” he said.


If he spent the 1970s sampling almost everything the punk scene had to offer, he left much of that behind when the decade ended and he became more serious about his art.


“I’ve been bathing in the light of sobriety for several months now,” he wrote at the start of an unpublished follow-up to “20th Century Boy” that was drawn from his journal entries from the 1980s. “Off the booze, off the drugs. Taking stock of my life.”


“It’s not as though I’m without my vices,” he added. “I drink a pot of coffee a day, and smoke 20-30 Camel filters. There is of course sex, although I’m not at all sure that constitutes a vice.”


His inclusion in the Times Square Show, a seminal group exhibition in 1980 that also included Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, put his art career in motion. In a 2016 interview with The Times, he recalled the surprise of a friend who in the early 1980s had come to his first solo show and seen his throwback works for the first time.


“‘Is this what you do? These are like real paintings,’” he recalled the friend saying. “His message was clear: ‘I thought you were cool!’ Well, I love painting. To me, Whistler is cool. Vuillard is really cool.”


In addition to his wife, Mr. Hannah is survived by a sister, Holly Lewis.


Mr. Hannah, who had homes in Cornwall and Brooklyn, reconnected with Ms. Sui years after their shared ’70s experiences. She said he would attend her fashion shows and enjoyed inviting friends to lunch at the Century Association, the Manhattan arts and dining club.


“Duncan had come full circle,” she said, “creating his wonderful life, sober and so proud of the fact that he had always supported himself as a working artist.”


Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic. More about Neil Genzlinger

Twentieth-Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies

by Duncan Hannah (Author)


A rollicking account of a celebrated artist's coming of age, full of outrageously bad behavior, naked ambition, fantastically good music, and evaporating barriers of taste and decorum, and featuring cameos from David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, and many more.


"A phantasmagoria of alcohol, sex, art, conversation, glam rock, and New Wave cinema. Hannah's writing combines self-aware humor with an intoxicating punk energy." --The New Yorker

Painter Duncan Hannah arrived in New York City from Minneapolis in the early 1970s as an art student hungry for experience, game for almost anything, and with a prodigious taste for drugs, girls, alcohol, movies, rock and roll, books, parties, and everything else the city had to offer. Taken directly from the notebooks Hannah kept throughout the decade, Twentieth-Century Boy is a fascinating, sometimes lurid, and incredibly entertaining report from a now almost mythical time and place.


The Thin White Dunc: A Jaded Dandy in 1970s New York

July 25, 2018      By Anthony Mostrom


Twentieth-Century Boy



YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T HEARD of Duncan Hannah, a New York–based painter and illustrator, though there’s a somewhat famous, mid-’70s photo of him lounging in a rattan chair next to a bathing-suit-clad Debbie Harry. The image comes from an obscure 1976 art film called Unmade Beds, an amateurish, charming New York time capsule directed by Amos Poe (neither Hannah nor Harry could act).


Hannah will now be known as a diarist. As he notes in his new book Twentieth-Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies: “This is not a memoir. These are journals, begun in 1970 at the age of seventeen, written as it happened, filled with youthful indiscretions.”


Arriving in New York City from Minnesota, thin and wispy young Duncan is already well read and culturally hip — and not lockstep hip either, but rather a precocious contrarian. In art, he likes comic books, illustrators, and, most of all, David Hockney. To his credit, he tells his knee-jerk-avant art teachers at Bard College that he likes the Pre-Raphaelites. (“They shook their heads…” Well, of course they did. Of course they did.) He paints portraits of his offbeat literary heroes (e.g., Wyndham Lewis, Colin Wilson), which itself is kind of odd, and exhibits them in a group show, “in spite of not fitting in with the show’s agenda.”


Most of this book recounts our young rake meeting almost everyone important in his two worlds of art and music: Hockney, Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, Larry Rivers, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry. A precocious dialectician, he can spar with the best — and worst — of them:

Danny shouts, “Louis, Louis, come join us!” looking at the entrance to the back room. I crane my neck to see who he is talking to. Gulp. Standing there in an alcoholic stupor, looking into my eyes, is the avatar of decadence and perversion, the legendary Lou Reed!


Creepy Reed lopes over to their table and whispers a truly stomach-turning proposition to our young diarist, which I won’t describe here. Appalled, Hannah becomes an ex-fan: “My hero worship is immediately over. Ick. […] He downs the rest of his tequila and leaves me alone in the booth to ponder my missed scatological opportunity.” It’s telling that Hannah, who lets the reader know that he has excised much from these journals, decided to leave this story in. Later on, he spots Reed at Max’s Kansas City, looking “like a skinny chimpanzee.”


Our narrator’s musings reach a peak of quotability whenever he’s witnessing the sorry truth about his heroes:

Fran Lebowitz sits with us and complains about her latest trick. [New York] Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan comes in with a gaudy chick in leopard skin, zippers, and frosted hair. Real skanky. Fran slips off …


Hannah also displays a shrewd ear for good music versus trash:

Bryan Ferry never disappoints […] Hawkwind […] weren’t to my taste. Queen […] I don’t like. […] Television is sounding better and better. Lenny Kaye called them “the golden apple at the top of the tree.”


[D]rove to Edgar Winter’s house on Sands Point, Long Island. This is Fitzgerald country, the fictional East Egg […] Gatsby! Yet inside this mansion was a rock band, dressed in their glitter sneakers and spandex, playing pinball machines and watching crap TV. Oblivious […] Pearls before swine, I thought to myself. We listened to a rough mix of their new album, which sounded lame […] Just loud, boring product for dullard youths. Rock ‘n roll can be incredibly stupid.



At what must have been the greatest New York rock-star party that ever happened, at the Academy of Music in June 1974, he sidles up to both Bryan Ferry, who’s distant and distracted, and David Bowie, who’s friendly, engaging, and witty:

He graced me with a glance, and I asked him if he was collecting material for a new song at this very minute. He sneered his canines at me and said, “Yah, why, do you wanna be in my song?”


I sneered back, “Yah, what about it?” We kept up our grimaces like a couple of thugs, necks outstretched, until he broke out laughing.


Meanwhile, in the art scene, minimalism is in full swing, but Duncan is (appropriately) unmoved. His stubborn conservatism, though, seems possibly to have cost him a more high-profile art career in such a ripe time and place. Hockney himself pays a visit and critiques his work (“Your drawing is a bit heavy-handed in the American fashion”), but progress remains slow, and he resists painting “something conceptual […] [s]omething that had quotes around it.” Regardless, Hannah’s days in New York were clearly tilted more in favor of “the life” (sex, drugs, and parties).


You might assume that our young-and-waify hero proceeded to screw his way willy-nilly through the gender-bending, glammy ’70s, this being the comparatively carefree, pre-AIDS era. But though his wolf-baiting good looks and friendliness are a constant magnet to a parade of lecherous males, he remains, steadfastly, straight as a razor.


The budding sociologist in Hannah (all of 22 here) is sharp-eyed when recalling a party at “the old Factory”:

This is the place where trigger-happy Valerie Solanas shot Andy. Creepy. They used to shoot laser beams from up here across the park into Max’s. I feel the party’s force fields, currents of strength, currents of weakness. “The love that dare not speak its name” just won’t shut up these days. Gayness has lost its underground status in NYC and is busy becoming the dominant sensibility. Lots of affectation. Sad when things turn to parody.


A short detour through London in August 1972 (“We sit at the dark basement bar and eyeball a couple of likely-looking English lasses, in their ‘frock coats and bipperty-bopperty hats’”) contains yet another best-possible-time-and-place music pilgrimage I can’t help but envy:

Robert Wyatt’s new group, Matching Mole, play. I love them. Then it’s Roy Wood’s Wizzard, who look ridiculous but sound great.



At intermission, we drank vodka […] and wound up talking to a forward young girl named Mary. […] Mary said she liked effeminate boys and I nudged her over to the doorway […] and kissed her and felt up her tits.


Bingo, glam-rock-era success! (This episode aside, the book is disappointingly scant on pornographic details, despite the number of conquests it chronicles.) Our thin white duke’s 20th birthday is summarily ruined, however, when his androgynous looks and excessive drinking in a London gay bar lead to what he calls a “near-rape experience,” the one truly frightening episode in the book.


While the party girls and the art-student girls keep on “flying low” for our handsome young buck, the picaresque life is starting to wear him down:

I smell like booze all the time now, but it’s expensive booze for a change. Perpetual hangover. […] I’m living faster than I can write. Not that I actually have something to write about. There’s no time to do it.


Everything turns sour. “The next chapter of this blackout finds me alone…” Hannah realizes he’s an alcoholic. A “real” girlfriend in his life (a rarity) turns out to be nuts:

Terry was hearing voices in her head, and she stabbed me in the chest with a small penknife she keeps in her bag. The little blade bounced off a bone. Ouch! This because the voices were teasing her about my so-called “harem.” “Terry, there is no harem!” But the voices insisted.


There is much tottering down smelly New York alleyways in platform shoes during many a besotted dawn. It’s a pungent, Scorsese’d-out New York that wafts up from these pages: “It’s hard to unravel people’s origins in New York. They act cagey. Suspicious”; neurosis in the air “mistaken for energy […] the new pissiness”; “[p]eople fall apart all the time.”


As a final flourish, our now jaded dandy is disappointed when he visits grumpy Ned Rorem, who doesn’t come on to him at all but is actually a rather unfriendly old fuck. But Dunc is unfazed. To quote from an old blues song: “His disposition takes him through this world.”


Twentieth-Century Boy is a breezy, demotically precise portrait of Bowie-and-Warhol New York, splayed like a passed-out wino on every page. Hannah, who has no regrets and still looks young, now lives in New York and Connecticut.