Alec Wildenstein: Art dealer and racehorse owner who divorced in a blaze of publicity

Alec Wildenstein was one of the two heirs of by far the richest family in the world of art. Until 1997, he was known only within art and racing, where the family were major owners and breeders. But then came a divorce which brought worldwide fascination, largely because of the multiple facelifts undergone by his estranged wife, Jocelyne, leading her to be called "The Bride of Wildenstein".

The lengthy divorce proceedings also revealed for the first time to the outside world the extent of the family's riches and the total control exercised by Alec's father Daniel over the business, Wildenstein & Co, even though his sons were both in their fifties. In his memoirs, written when he was already over 80, Daniel does not even mention his sons, while his fortune was left in trust not to Alec and his younger brother Guy, but to their children.

Alec Wildenstein's later years were clouded by two further court cases. In one he was sued by his stepmother to gain a fair share of his father's estate; in the other he and his younger brother Guy failed in an attempt to sue an author who had revealed the extent to which their grandfather Georges had collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.

The family business had been founded by Alec's great-grandfather Nathan, who had fled to Paris from Alsace following the German occupation in 1871. Although his family had historically traded purely in livestock Nathan drifted into art, specialising in the then-undervalued French art and furniture of the 18th century. His son and grandson broadened their business into more modern art and developed a system of "catalogues raisonées" which became the authority for authenticating the works of more than 60 leading artists. Their fortune was based on the enormous collection of art works they had stored in their vaults. The family were always obsessionally secretive.

Alec's first wife, Jocelyne Perisse, came from a Swiss bourgeois background and had learnt to fly and hunt. She was introduced to Alec by the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi on a shooting weekend at Wildenstein's 60,000-acre Kenyan ranch. He fell heavily for her and they married a year later in a lavish ceremony in Las Vegas.

But Alec was a difficult husband, depressed by his father's continuing iron grip on the business even after Daniel nominally relinquished control in 1990. As a result Jocelyne grew obsessed with her appearance, trying desperately to please her husband by making herself more cat-like to resemble the beloved animals on his Kenyan estate. The result left her barely able to move a muscle, giving rise to descriptions like "Tiger Woman".

In September 1997, returning early from a trip to Kenya she found Alec in bed with his mistress, a young Russian model, only to be threatened by him with a revolver because – or so he later claimed in court – he thought he had caught a burglar. After a night spent in jail on counts of "second-degree menacing" he blitzed his wife's existence, cutting her telephone lines, cancelling her credit cards and locking most of the rooms in their house. Unfortunately for him, the judge banned him from the family home during the divorce proceedings.

The couple had started relatively peaceful divorce proceedings even before the bedroom incident but this led to lengthy and naturally widely reported divorce proceedings where Alec Wildenstein made matters worse for himself by never appearing in court – not surprising in someone who, like the rest of his family, had lived totally out of the public gaze. Jocelyne demanded a monthly allowance of $200,000 and a deposit of $50m pending a settlement. Absurdly Alec Wildenstein pleaded poverty, claiming that he did not really live in the United States and that his earnings added up to a mere $175,000 a year, for the family had never paid any income tax in the United States.

Unfortunately for him, the proceedings revealed a lifestyle worthy of the – excessively – rich and famous and such financial revelations naturally resulted in further adverse publicity. The couple's New York home was a double-width townhouse in Manhattan complete with swimming pool, a mansion which he shared with his brother and their children, and which he put on the market for $35m in 2002. He and his brother had also inherited an impressive château near Paris, as well as apartments in Paris and Switzerland, and a beach estate in the Caribbean. Household staff included a chef – Jocelyne claimed that she had never learned to boil a kettle – and a maid who tended the household's numerous dogs. Not surprisingly, Jocelyne found herself well provided for after the divorce, although the judge did suggest that she buy a microwave. In 2000 Alec consoled himself by marrying another young Russian-born model, Liouba Stoupakova.

The family's troubles mounted with the publication of The Lost Museum, a book by Hector Feliciano which revealed that, although Georges, Daniel's father, had left France for the United States in 1941, a year after Alec had been born in Marseilles, his business, run by a faithful employee, had continued to trade extremely profitably with the Nazis throughout the war. Alec and Guy sued for defamation in a French court but lost.

On Daniel Wildenstein's death in 2001, Guy, reckoned to be much the tougher businessman, took control of the family's art business, leaving Alec with their enormous, and historically enormously successful, racing interests, the Ecurie Wildenstein. This included not only flat and jump-racing in France, Britain and even the United States, but also trotters and a major breeding operation. Like the art business, this had been under their father's total control until his death.

Daniel had set a pattern of total ruthlessness which Alec followed, giving rise to public comments of an overt bitterness unusual in the normally gentlemanly world of racing. Alec showed no hesitation in sacking even the best-respected of trainers and jockeys if he thought they had made a mistake. His father's victims had included trainers as distinguished as Alec Head, as well as the jockey Lester Piggott, who once described the Wildensteins as "inveterate bad losers".

Wildenstein's outspokenness reached a climax after the 2004 Ascot Gold Cup, in which his horse Westerner was only second after a final spurt in which its jockey, Gerald Mosse, pulled the plugs out of the horse's ears, even though he had been warned by the Ascot authorities that such an act was against the rules. After inspecting the winner, Wildenstein claimed that "the dope-testing machine must be broken" and promptly sacked the jockey – he had done the same with another famous name, Dominique Boeuf, sacked after failing at Epsom in 2004, after which Wildenstein replied to a journalist who suggested that Boeuf and Vallée Enchantée had been unlucky, that "We weren't unlucky. She was ridden by an asshole who didn't follow instructions."

But in 2005 Westerner, which won five other major races that season, finally enabled the family to achieve their dream of a Gold Cup win. "My family have waited a long time for this day," Alec Wildenstein said. "Father used to tell me about the Gold Cup when I was a little boy." Under Alec Wildenstein, the Ecurie won over 15 million euros with its flat and jump horses as well as 5 million in trotting races. In recent years the family had cut back on its breeding operations, although they still own more than 50 brood mares.

The cut-back may have been due to the troubles the brothers created for themselves when dealing with their stepmother, Sylvia – a former Israeli army sergeant who had been married to their father for over 20 years – after Daniel's death. They reduced her monthly cash allowance, sold the family apartment in central Paris and moved her to another one in the Bois de Boulogne. When the brothers transferred the ownership of her four horses to the Ecurie Wildenstein, she sued. She claimed that the brothers had forced her to sign away her inheritance shortly after her husband's death by claiming that she would face huge tax bills and a possible criminal investigation.

The court ruled that under French law she was entitled to a half-share in her husband's fortune. Although the – private – final settlement was undoubtedly far less than her full entitlement, the decision was linked to the cutback in the expenditure on racing and the sale for $38m of some of the brothers' collection of 18th-century furniture, even though Alec and Guy claimed that it was merely a house-cleaning operation.

The various lawsuits since 1997 had provided more – and more unfavourable – publicity for the family than it had accumulated in the previous century and a quarter. But even though successive cases made a dent in the fabled family fortune, the losses have probably been more than retrieved by the increase in the price of art works over the past few years.

Nicholas Faith

Alec Wildenstein, art dealer and racehorse owner: born Marseilles, France 5 August 1940; married 1978 Jocelyne Perisse (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 2000 Liouba Stoupakova; died Paris 18 February 2008.

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