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A French drive to curb large-scale tax fraud received a setback yesterday when a court acquitted Guy Wildenstein, the head of one of the world’s biggest art dynasties, of avoiding €550 million in taxes.
Delivering verdicts after a three-week trial that had been dubbed “Dallas-upon-Seine”, judges said that a legal loophole had prevented them from reaching a guilty verdict against the patriarch of the Franco-American art dealing family. Prosecutors had called for a two-year prison term and a €250 million fine against Mr Wildenstein, 71, for what they called “the longest and most sophisticated” tax fraud in modern France.
The judges said that they were convinced that the Wildenstein family had deliberately hidden inherited assets in offshore trusts and other structures but that this was not technically illegal in France until 2011. The alleged offences took place at the start of the century. “The powerful and the poor” have an equal right to justice, Olivier Geron, the presiding judge, told the court in Paris, adding that the outcome might be seen as unfair. “The court is perfectly aware its verdict may run counter to public belief and be misunderstood,” he said.
The prosecutors said that on the death of Daniel Wildenstein in France in 2001, his sons Guy and Alec transferred hundreds of millions of euros in assets from New York to Switzerland. One of the trusts they set up holds paintings worth more than €1 billion, they said. Alec died in 2008.
Mr Wildenstein told the court that he had been mystified by the complicated tax schemes put in place by his late father and brother. He was not in court for the verdict. Prosecutors have the right to appeal. This would automatically lead to a new trial.