The proceedings opened with lawyers for Guy Wildenstein, 72, contesting the legal grounds for the trial, which is expected to last for four weeks.
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.
“For at least three generations, members of the Wildenstein family have carefully concealed a considerable estate behind legal vehicles outside of French law, thereby escaping taxation,” the court said at the time.
But the presiding judge said lapses in the investigation and in French law made it impossible to return a guilty verdict, a decision that was immediately appealed by prosecutors.
They say the family’s true assets range from a Paris mansion to the Kenya ranch where “Out of Africa” was filmed, along with a legendary trove of masterpieces including works by Caravaggio and Rococo painter Fragonard.
Prosecutors argue that most of the dynasty’s billions of euros are held by a web of trusts and holding companies stretching from the Channel Island of Guernsey to the Bahamas.
But after Guy’s father Daniel Wildenstein died in 2001, Guy and his brother Alec declared an inheritance of just 41 million euros ($50 million) incurring a tax bill of 17.7 million euros — which they settled by offering bas-relief sculptures made for Marie Antoinette, the wife of France’s Louis XVI.
French authorities alleged that Guy and Alec had quickly started transferring assets from New York to Switzerland.
Prosecutors had urged a four-year prison sentence and a 250-million-euro fine.
– Legal loophole –
The allegations surfaced over a decade ago when various Wildenstein widows and ex-wives, feeling shortchanged by the clan, began lifting the lid on its business dealings.
After Daniel’s death, Guy and Alec’s stepmother Sylvia Roth claimed she had been hoodwinked by the pair into relinquishing her share of the inheritance, and successfully sued.
French tax authorities claim the Wildenstein family owes them 550 million euros in unpaid inheritance taxes from 2001 and 2008.
At the time French law was not clear on whether trusts based outside France, long used to mask the true owners of wealth or property, had to be disclosed to tax authorities.
That loophole was closed in 2011 with what quickly became known as the “Wildenstein law”, and prosecutors say it should be applied in the art dynasty’s own case.
During the trial Guy claimed he himself was mystified by the labyrinthine tax schemes put in place by his father and older brother.
But French tax officials argue that no matter the methods, fraud is manifest from the moment that a person “knowingly tries to evade exposure to tax laws.”
Guy Wildenstein’s co-defendants include a nephew, also named Alec; his sister-in-law Liouba Stoupakova; a notary; two lawyers; and two financial advisory firms.
Alec Wildenstein, who was thrust into the spotlight over his messy divorce from Swiss socialite and cosmetic surgery aficionado Jocelyne Perisse, died in 2008.
After his death, Guy Wildenstein declared an inheritance of $61 million, an amount seen as highly conservative given the assets amassed by the family over decades.