Saturday, September 02, 2023

Secrets of the global art market, revealed through family drama.

The painting above, Caravaggio's "The Lute Player,"circa 1596 (image: Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons), now on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is part of the vast collection of the Wildenstein family. This New York Times story by Rachel Corbett tells how two women, Sylvia, widow of Daniel Wildenstein and Jocelyne, widow of his son Alec, were cheated out of their inheritances by claims that, in Alec's case he was penniless because he had been an upaid assistant to his father, and in Daniel's that he had amassed ruinous debts. Jocelyne, who lived with Alec in New York, retained lawyers here and got a judge to rule that Alec's claim of poverty "insults the intelligence of the court." This resulted in a very favorable settlement for Jocelyne, reported to be in the low billions.

The Times story focuses on Sylvia's case. It begins with her stepsons (Daniel's by an earlier marriage) Alec and Guy convincing her to give up her inheritance, which she did readily given a promise that she would be taken care of financially. A matter of particular concern to her was the family's stable of thoroughbred horses, which Daniel had entrusted to her care and which she considered her "babies." After some time she got word they were being raced under a name other than "Mme. Wildenstein"; that of a company owned by her stepsons. This spurred Sylvia to consult a lawyer, Claude Dumont Beghi (a woman; I learned that "Claude" can be either a man's or a woman's name in French when a philosophy professor told me I had the same name as his wife), who sent a letter denying that ownership of the horses had been transferred.

What Dumont Beghi heard from Sylvia concerning her renunciation of her inheritance convinced her, in the words of the Times story, that "there was more going on than a dispute over horses." With Sylvia's permission, Dumont Beghi began an investigation, described in detail in the Times story, that led to a court order undoing the renunciation because, based in part by evidence from Jocelyn's case, it was procured by fraud. 

For me the most interesting, and disturbing, fact that is disclosed in the Times story, not a secret but a little known fact except by those involved in the art or other valuable goods markets, is the existence of "free ports" which "allow traders [including art merchants] to ship and store property without paying taxes or customs duties." The free port at Geneva, Switzerland is "the size of 22 soccer fields" and "is said to contain more art than the Louvre." There are six more free ports, in Zurich, Luxembourg, Singapore, Monaco, Delaware and Beijing. My objection to these free ports, in addition to their denying revenue to governments, is that in some, perhaps many, instances significant art works may languish in them for many years. A buyer who is a speculator may put a purchased work there and leave it until offered an attractive price. If the second buyer is also a speculator, the work may remain locked up, possibly for years, until another attractive offer materializes, and so on. The argument for free ports is that they greatly reduce transaction costs, thereby making it easier to buy and sell artworks. In and of itself, this is a benefit to artists or to their estates, so long as the artists or their heirs don't mind their works being hidden from sight, perhaps for a very long time. 

I also learned from the Times story that the Wildensteins held a substantial number of paintings, perhaps 180 out of the estimated 700 or so the artist had produced, by a painter I admire, the French "post-impressionist" (it seems now that everything artistic is "post" something) Pierre Bonnard. In 2009 I saw an exhibition of his paintings and drawings at the Met, "Late Interiors," and posted about it here. The photo at left, which comes from another post about "Late Interiors" in Carol Gillott's "Paris Breakfasts" blog, shows Bonnard at work, using his unconventional technique of painting while his canvas is fastened to a wall,

Bonnard died in 1947. His wife predeceased him and they had no children. According to the Times story, his most proximate heirs were "three estranged nieces-in-law." Daniel found another relative with a colorable claim, bought his inheritance rights for $1 million, and funded a lengthy lawsuit on his behalf that led to a settlement in which Daniel acquired 500 paintings and the nieces got 25, though "Daniel promised them more to avoid further litigation." The Times story tells how Dumont Beghi and an appraiser went to the Geneva Free Port to examine the Bonnards kept there by Daniel. She found there paintings by an artist "known above all for his radiant use of color" that were "locked behind an armored door" in a "gloomy bunker."

As an example of Bonnard's "radiant use of color" consider his "Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet" (Pierre Bonnard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

So it is that three determined French women, two widows, Jocelyne and Sylvia Wildenstein, whose late husbands' family tried to cheat them of their inheritances, and one very conscientious and thoroughgoing lawyer, Claude Dumont Beghi, broke through what the Times story (which you should read to get the full detail and flavor) calls the Wildensteins' "code of omertà" and, in so doing, brought to light the shadowy corners of the global market for fine art works.

Jimmy Buffett, "A Pirate Looks at Forty"

His New York Times obituary calls him a "rougish bard of island escapism." According to his website, "Jimmy passed away peacefully on the night of September 1st surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs."

The video above is of my favorite of his songs, "A Pirate Looks at Forty," a wistful mid-life take on what he'd seen and done and what he wished for. I liked his melange of country and calypso, and his commitment to the environment. Fair winds, Jimmy.