September 11, 1917, is the birthdate of Daniel Wildenstein, heir to the powerful dynasty of art dealers founded by his grandfather Nathan Wildenstein. In its peak years Wildenstein & Co. owned one of the world’s most valuable collections of art, whose parts it bought and sold with the secrecy and intrigue one might expect from a Cold War spy organization.
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Wildenstein & Co. started off modestly, after Nathan (1851-1934) fled from his native Alsace to Paris, when the former was invaded by Germany during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In the French capital, Nathan began as a tailor before he began selling bric-a-brac, followed, almost by chance, by fine art. He started with Old Masters and late-18th century French art, and before long, his clients included Rothschilds and Rockefellers, and men named Frick and Morgan.
A different kind of spy network
Nathan was succeeded by his son Georges (1892-1963), who added to the genres collected by his father work by Impressionists and post-Impressionists. He employed spies around France, whether they were notaries from villages where wealthy chateau-owners lived, or auction house employees, to inform him when art was about to become available. He himself operated with hermetic secrecy, and stockpiled works of art, to be sold when the market was optimal.
According to a 1998 article in Vanity Fair, at one point the Wildenstein inventory was said to hold two Botticellis, eight Rembrandts, three canvases by Velazquez, and countless Impressionist works, to name just a small sample.
George’s son Daniel Leopold Wildenstein was born outside Paris, in the suburb of Verrières-le-Buisson. His mother was the former Jeanne Levy.
Daniel studied at the prestigious Cours Hattemer, an elite independent school, which was followed by the Sorbonne, from which he graduated in 1938, and the Ecole du Louvre, the French grande ecole specializing in art history, archaeology and related subjects.
According to Vanity Fair, Daniel acquired expensive habits early on, becoming a regular at the exclusive Paris brothel “122,” after being introduced to it and its proprietor, Madame Claude, by his father.
By the time Georges Wildenstein moved the family and the firm's base of operations to New York, in 1941, Daniel was already there, running the gallery in New York. In 1959, he became chairman of the board of Wildenstein & Co.
Daniel viewed himself as an art historian, and wrote the definitive catalogues raisonnees for Claude Monet, Eduard Manet and Gustave Courbet. The day after he died, his book on Paul Gauguin was published too.
But Wildenstein’s parallel career as a horse breeder was no less important to him. His stables held 600 horses in the 1970s, which won the premier French race, the Prix l’Arc de Triomphe, four separate times.
Toward the end of Daniel’s life, accusations surfaced that his late father had collaborated with the Nazis even after he had moved to New York. Daniel sued the historian who leveled the charges for libel – and lost.
Around the same time, a descendant of Jewish collector Alphonse Kann, who had had to flee Paris for London in 1940 leaving behind a valuable collection to be confiscated by the Germans, claimed that eight valuable illuminated manuscripts in the Wildenstein holdings had been acquired from the looters, and sued for their return. Daniel, who was incensed by the claim, said the Kanns had waited too long to complain, explaining to a journalist that, “After 30 years, the man who stole it owns it.”
His final years were also marred by the ugly divorce proceedings between his son Alec and his wife Jocelyne (whose less-than-successful plastic surgeries had earned her the sobriquet “the Bride of Wildenstein”), who broke the family code of silence by sharing family dirty laundry with the press.
Daniel died in Paris on October 23, 2001. That event, too, precipitated an unpleasant fight between his widow, a former Israeli named Sylvia Roth, and his two sons. Sylvia claimed that Alec and Guy had tricked her into signing away her legacy by telling her it would save her taxes, and won her case in court.
Today the family empire, is much reduced in size, as Guy, who now runs the show, has been pursued by the French tax authorities, and has had to sell off both real estate and canvases.