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Art dynasty heir Wildenstein cleared at Paris fraud trial
In this file photo taken on September 22, 2016 French American art dealer Guy Wildenstein arrives for his trial over tax fraud at the courthouse in Paris. A Paris court will rule on June 29, 2018 on the Wildenstein case appeal trial. Eric FEFERBERG / AFP.

by Sofia Bouderbala

PARIS (AFP).- Guy Wildenstein, the Franco-American patriarch of an art-dealing dynasty, was cleared Friday of tax fraud after being accused of hiding hundreds of millions of euros from French authorities.

A first trial for him and other family members collapsed in January 2017, but French prosecutors successfully appealed for a re-trial, only to suffer a second setback on Friday when the Wildensteins were acquitted again.

The appeal court "finds that the crime of tax fraud is outside the statute of limitations... and confirms the judgement" of the first trial, the presiding judge told a packed courtroom in Paris during a five-minute judgement.

Prosecutors had called for a four-year prison sentence and a fine of 250 million euros for Wildenstein during the trial, which stems from a multi-generational inheritance squabble worthy of a soap opera.

The case revolved around tax declarations filed in 2002 and 2008.

Wildenstein's nephew Alec Junior and his ex-stepsister Liouba Stoupakova were also cleared, as well as trust fund managers and lawyers who were put on trial.

In January 2017, a court found evidence of a "clear attempt" by Wildenstein and seven co-defendants to hide art treasures and properties worth hundreds of millions of euros from tax authorities.

Most of the dynasty's billions are held by a web of trusts and holding companies stretching from the Channel Island of Guernsey to the Bahamas.

But the presiding judge said lapses in the investigation and in French law made it impossible to return a guilty verdict, a decision that led to the appeal by prosecutors for a re-trial.

'Load of rubbish'
Wildenstein's lawyers had always contested the legal grounds for the prosecution, arguing that there was "no legal nor moral grounds to accuse Guy Wildenstein of anything."

His lawyer Herve Temime called the verdict on Friday "the only decision possible" and sharply criticised French prosecutors.

"It's very easy to make up figures, to sully a name, a family, and explain in every way possible that there was massive tax evasion that must be judged. Except that it was false and a load of rubbish," he said.

Wildenstein is the heir of three generations of wealthy art dealers and thoroughbred racehorse breeders.

French tax authorities claimed that family money was hidden after the death of Guy's father Daniel in 2001 and his brother Alec in 2008, both of whom died in Paris.

Alec became famous during his messy divorce from Swiss socialite Jocelyne Perisse, nicknamed "Bride of Wildenstein" for her extreme cosmetic surgery, reportedly to make her look more cat-like.

The second wives and widows of Daniel and Alec rose up against the family over their slice of the inheritance, accusing Guy of hiding much of his inherited fortune via a web of opaque trusts in tax havens.

This piqued the interest of French investigators, who began probing the case in 2010 and demanded in 2014 a tax adjustment payment of 550 million euros.

Family assets include a host of works by Rococo painter Fragonard and post-Impressionist Bonnard, and a stable of thoroughbred horses including Ascot Gold Cup winner Westerner.

Other assets included a vast real estate portfolio, with the jewel in the crown a luxurious Kenyan ranch which provided the backdrop for the film "Out of Africa".

In Friday's court ruling, the presiding judge said Guy Wildenstein could not be prosecuted over a 2002 tax declaration after his father's death because too much time had elapsed since.

The statute of limitations for prosecutions at the time was only three years.

For the second tax declaration in 2008 after Alec's death, the judge found there was no legal basis for prosecuting the Wildensteins.

France changed its law on trust funds in 2011 -- known as the "Wildenstein law" -- to give tax authorities greater power to pursue individuals who shift assets to offshore investment funds to avoid tax.

© Agence France-Presse

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