PARIS—French police seized some thirty artworks from the Wildenstein Institute in Paris last month, including pieces by Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot, that were long considered to have disappeared or been stolen. The works had drawn police attention as part of an ongoing investigation of Guy Wildenstein, the Institute’s president, in connection with a number of lawsuits. One of the works found and seized, Morisot’s Cottage in Normandy, valued at €800,000, had been missing for many years and was formerly in the private collection of Anne-Marie Rouart, who died in 1993. She had been a friend of Guy Wildenstein’s father, Daniel Wildenstein.
Guy Wildenstein’s lawyer, Jean-Francois Prat, refused to comment on the case, and Wildenstein could not be reached.
However, according to Serge Lewisch, an attorney for Yves Rouart, an heir of Anne-Marie Rouart and the plaintiff in one of the pending lawsuits, Anne-Marie entrusted Daniel Wildenstein with many of her paintings for security reasons when she traveled, and a truck was regularly dispatched to her home in Neuilly, a wealthy Paris suburb, to transport them to the Institute’s safe.
In her will, she bequeathed her collection to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, whose treasurer was Daniel Wildenstein, with the wish that many of the works would go to the Musée Marmottan in Paris, except for what the French refer to as “meubles meublants,” all the contents and furnishings of her apartment, including any paintings hanging there, which she explicitly left to Yves Rouart. Once Yves became aware that the works that had been hanging in the apartment were missing from his inheritance, he sued for theft and breach of trust.
In response to press reports about the ongoing controversy, Guy Wildenstein published a statement asserting that he had been “unaware” that the Berthe Morisot painting was in the Institute’s vault and hadn’t known the work might possibly have ties to the Rouart collection until reading about it in the press. If these assertions were true, he stated,“the work’s presence in the Institute’s vault could result only from an error or a memory lapse.” He added, “Regarding whatever concerns me, I will answer in all serenity, at the proper time, any questions from the authorities…. I will persist on the other hand, in refusing to make any comment relating to the family disagreements in progress.”
The co-executors of the Rouart estate were Guy Wildenstein and art expert Olivier Daulte. However, according to his statement, Guy says he himself did not deal with the estate, but asked his father, Daniel, to remove the works from Rouart’s collection that were being safeguarded in their vaults, return them to her apartment, and take care of the inventory. But Daniel Wildenstein and Daulte removed all the paintings from her apartment walls and mixed them with the others in the Institute’s collection, according to Yves Rouart.
While some of the paintings had gone to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, others were unaccounted for.
In 1999, after the death of François Daulte (Olivier’s father), an expert specializing in Impressionism, his heirs found more than 20 of the paintings, including works by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Degas and Edouard Manet, in his safe at a Swiss bank. Several others, including Cottage in Normandy, however, remained missing.
According to Serge Lewisch, an agent familiar with that case recognized Cottage in Normandy during his investigation in the Wildenstein vault and photographed it, along with many of the other works that have since been seized by the police.
Among them were works that had been missing from the collection of Alexandre Bronstein, a descendant of Joseph Reinach, whose important art collection, including bronzes by Rembrandt Bugatti and two Edgar Degas sketches, was looted by the Nazis.
Important works by Manet and Corot from the estate, that had been hanging in Anne-Marie Rouart’s apartment, are still missing.The criminal investigation is ongoing and, according to Serge Lewisch, may continue for several months.