Creative Industries: Exposed: the secret lives of the shy billionaires

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LAST week Bill Gates ventured on to American television - ABC's 20-20 - to dispel rumours that he wasn't just some geek-robot bent on world domination, but a real live human being with real live feelings. He really loved his wife, for example. Really! And nothing - no, American viewers, nothing! - made him happier than his new baby. He would not trade his firstborn for anything, not even an upgrade.

It was a nauseating performance. But who could blame him? Mr Gates now belongs to the class of rich men whose fortunes depend in part on public perceptions of his character. He is the human face of Microsoft; and Microsoft, in its various legal battles, is playing in the court of public opinion. When Bill Gates appears in public these days he has no choice but to sound as if he is running for president.

Actually, it's worse than that. Unlike the real president, Mr Gates must hold himself to some old-fashioned standards. Microsoft cannot afford to have him caught with interns under his desk.

The problem is not confined to Mr Gates. Run down the list of the American rich and you find a lot of men who sound like they are running for president. Warren Buffett. George Soros. Jane Fonda's husband, Ted Turner (lately).

All this good behaviour serves a higher purpose, I suppose. It certainly serves the low one of disguising power from the masses. But watching Mr Gates, I, for one, found myself wishing for a rich man who behaved like a rich man. If a man is going to bother making himself worth $40bn, he should have the decency to break a few legs.

Just in time there appears on the scene - or on Prime Time Live - a billionaire from central casting. His name is Daniel Wildenstein. He is short and dark and unfriendly. He speaks with a sinister French accent. His family is accused of, among other things, helping the Nazis to loot art from French Jews. He and his two sons, Alec and Guy, preside over an art dealership in New York and Paris that owns perhaps $10bn in Old Master paintings, sculptures and drawings. There is no debt; the art is owned outright, accumulated over the past 100 years, God knows how.

The gallery was founded more than a century ago by a Wildenstein who traded rags with the Impressionists in exchange for paintings. Even today, Wildenstein & Co owns dozens of Cezannes, Monets, Manets, Van Goghs and Bonnards that the world has never seen. It owns, by one count, 69 paintings by Fragonard.

If you have never heard of the Wildensteins it is because they are extremely good at hiding from you. I worked as a stock boy for the Wildenstein gallery briefly in the early 1980s and couldn't quite believe its ability to keep secrets.

One day Daniel walks into the gallery and asks to see the Houdon. The salesmen all looked at each other; no one recalled ever having a Houdon. No one recalled seeing a Houdon outside of the Louvre. If a Houdon existed, they figured, it would have been classified a French national treasure and not allowed to leave France. At least it would be in the art history text books.

Daniel becomes obstreperous, in the manner of Blofeld after he has been outwitted by James Bond. "Bring me the Houdon!" he shouts. By now everyone is frightened to death. Daniel hops into the elevator to the basement. There he throws open a cabinet and extracts a large plaster bust of his father, George Wildenstein (the putative Nazi collaborator). With a mallet and chisel he cracks the plaster and inside - voila! - a Houdon. A bust of Mirabeau, the notorious triple agent of the French Revolution.

What is wonderful about this story is that it is just one of many. No one dared to tell the Wildenstein's secrets.

No longer. One hundred years of Wildenstein secrecy and discretion is going up in smoke. And why? Not because of some government probe. The cause is an estranged wife! Jocelyne Wildenstein, the wife of Alec Wildenstein, son of patriarch Daniel, having discovered her husband's affair with another woman, is refusing to go quietly into the night.

By court order she and her dogs remain lodged in the Wildenstein mansion on East 64th Street. The Wildensteins have told their cook to feed the dogs but not the wife. In what will no doubt be a successful bid to bring her husband to heel Mrs Wildenstein has taken his infidelity to the tabloids and TV shows.

Last week she invited Prime Time Live to tour the family mansion. The reporter provided a running commentary designed to elicit awe. ("So these paintings on the wall, they're worth millions of dollars, right?")

But the effect was just the opposite. For 100 years the Wildensteins have kept their gallery closed to all but a handful of the very rich. Who knows if they helped Goering to loot other French Jews? Whatever the truth, they are exposed, as helpless before the cameras as any other billionaires. One more Blofeld bites the dust. He may not know it yet. But Daniel Wildenstein is running for President.

q Michael Lewis is the author of 'Liar's Poker', the best-selling account of Wall Street in the 1980s.

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