All in the Family

Spring erupted with a startling beauty in New York this June, bathing young and old, rich and poor alike in a luxurious halo of sunlight and hope. There’s more bounce than usual in the shoppers’ stride, more glee in the schoolchildren’s shrieks, more color in the dress (and undress) of young lovers strolling the concrete canyons.

It’s winter, though, at Wildenstein and Co., New York’s most exclusive art gallery. The ornately marbled townhouse, steps away from Pucci, Armani, Temple Emanu-El and other shrines of the rich, seems haunted this spring by ghosts of the Holocaust and memories of Paris. And, if you will, by a woman known as “the Bride of Wildenstein.”

Haunting, too, is the Wildenstein gallery’s spring show, “Snow Scenes.” It features 10 ghostly landscapes, all from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, depicting Paris and environs blanketed in snow. The most arresting canvas — visible from the foyer — is Albert Marquet’s 1913 “La Gare Montparnasse sous la neige,” priced at $1 million; it shows a snowbound Paris train station. From afar it looks unsettlingly like old photos of the railhead at Auschwitz.

“Snow Scenes” may well reflect the owners’ mood. The Wildensteins, a wealthy French-Jewish art-dealing dynasty, have been headquartered here since patriarch Georges fled Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941. They’re now embroiled in one of the nastiest disputes in the whole international morass of Nazi looting and Jewish restitution. A Paris court is expected to decide their case next week.

The Wildensteins are trying to recover not stolen art but their reputation. A series of recent exposés has left them bloodied by charges that Georges, who died in 1963, was in league with the Nazi art-looting machine. “The charge is that they not only collaborated, they profited,” says the World Jewish Congress’s Elan Steinberg.

Last year, Georges’ son Daniel, now 81, filed a $1.8 million libel suit in Paris against one of the accusers, journalist Hector Feliciano. He’s the author of “The Hidden Museum,” a landmark 1995 study of Nazi art theft.

Feliciano’s book claims that the Wildensteins’ Paris gallery, “aryanized” by the Nazis and reclaimed after the war, was secretly under Georges’ control throughout. Citing U.S. Army documents, it claims that Georges did business directly with a leading Nazi art dealer.

Daniel Wildenstein’s lawsuit, cosigned by sons Alec and Guy, claims that Feliciano’s allegations are false, defamatory, and ignore Georges’ decorated Resistance activity. It says the book caused the family “commercial damage” by impugning Georges’ honesty, which “translates directly into distrust by clients and particularly by important Jewish American clients.” The family wants Feliciano barred from writing about them ever again.

Feliciano calls the suit “strange.” Others have written worse things. Most damning was a series of articles in Vanity Fair, a glossy magazine with a huge, affluent readership, which painted a devastating picture of Georges as a collaborator with Nazis and trafficker in plundered art. Nobody else was sued.

Feliciano thinks that he’s been picked “because the others are news organizations, and I’m an independent journalist.” That means he must pay all his own legal costs, he says. “They’re suing me so that other journalists will think twice before writing about them.”

Secrecy is a Wildenstein hallmark, going back generations. Their business began in 1875 when Nathan Wildenstein, an Alsatian tailor, opened a bric-a-brac shop in Paris. By the time son Georges joined in 1910, at age 18, it was one of Paris’ most respected art galleries. Father and son built a secret worldwide buying network, plus galleries in New York, London and Buenos Aires. Nathan died in 1934.

Today, the Wildensteins are said to be the world’s richest and most powerful private art dealers. Their holdings, stashed in vaults on several continents and estimated in the billions of dollars, are rumored to include rarely seen Picassos and other “lost” works. In addition to homes in New York, Paris and Switzerland, they reputedly own horse farms, a 66,000-acre ranch in Kenya and a private island in the Caribbean.

Since the Nazi restitution battles began in 1995, they’ve had nothing but trouble. Last year, another transplanted French-Jewish family, the Kanns, complained that rare medieval manuscripts seized from them by the Nazis had turned up in Wildenstein hands, apparently acquired from the looters. The Wildensteins dismissed the claim, insisting that they acquired the manuscripts decades before. A Wildenstein spokesman says the Kanns “seem to have dropped it.”

Most humiliating was the spectacular divorce battle of Alec and his wife, Jocelyne, a Swiss-born ex-model. The split became public in September 1997, when Alec was arrested at the family’s New York mansion, allegedly after Jocelyne caught him in flagrante and he threatened her with a gun. New York’s tabloids plastered the story on Page 1 for weeks with huge close-ups of Jocelyne’s oddly misshapen face, a result of too much plastic surgery. The tabloids dubbed her “The Bride of Wildenstein.”

For two years, rumors swirled around father Daniel’s efforts to cut Jocelyne off without a penny. This winter, however, sources close to the case say the family secretly settled, despite Daniel’s objections.

The settlement shows the Wildensteins’ mounting distress. Observers say the family was desperate to avoid a trial, where Jocelyne might testify about family holdings or practices. “She could have devastated them because she knows where all the dogs are buried,” said one source close to the case. The danger grew as the Feliciano trial date approached. Feliciano could have subpoenaed records from the divorce case. “That’s probably why they finally settled,” says an observer.

The Wildensteins aren’t the first Jews to be accused of profiteering off Nazi plunder. Charges of art theft were made last year against Madeleine Albright’s parents. Such incidents weren’t uncommon in the chaos of postwar Europe. Countless more cases have surfaced of Jews who worked with the Nazis to save their own skins.

But the Wildenstein saga is on another scale. It’s the story of a family that, unlike most European Jews, actually had choices. If Feliciano is right, they chose the low road.

It raises disturbing questions. We’re accustomed to wondering why ordinary Germans made the choices they made. We’ve never had to wonder about ordinary Jews. That’s one reason the story of the Holocaust is, for all its horror, so satisfying. It confirms Jews’ sense of ourselves in the world.

The Wildensteins’ woes should make us think again. “Essentially, the Holocaust is a matter of the evil that human beings are capable of doing to other human beings,” says Feliciano. Even in the best of families.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.