It’s a story you can’t make up because it’s too convoluted, but rich with Hatfield and McCoy-like internecine family battles – but this one over a $3 billion art collection, part of which may or may not have already been sold but wasn’t.
Confused? Easy to be when trying to plow through the long saga surrounding the art works owned by the late shipping mogul Basil Goulandris and late wife Elise, a childless couple who were among the world’s richest tycoons in the 1950s and for decades later, jet-setting from New York’s Hamptons to the ritzy Swiss aristocratic scene in Gstaad, or traveling the world on their yacht Paloma.
In a detailed look, the Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow tried to sort out the who’s who and what’s what behind rival claims to their art collection, ranging from Pollock to Monet and including invaluable pieces, 11 Picassos, six Van Goghs, five Cezannes as part of a treasure that has devotees drooling.
The Goulandris collection is now at the center of one of the biggest and most complex legal disputes over art in Europe—including a bombshell revelation in the Panama Papers, masterpieces hidden for more than 20 years, a secret seller using an offshore company to put up paintings for auction and a fight that boils down to one non-existent will and one cryptic one.
THE STUFF OF MOVIES
You can’t make this stuff up.
At the center of a 16-year family feud is a niece of the Goulandris’ who claims she and her cousins should have inherited much of the couple’s art after their aunt Elise died in 2000.
The niece, Aspasia Zaimis, a feisty shipbuilder’s wife who is in her 70s and lives in Athens, says her aunt owned the trove when she died and intended for it to go to her relatives. Another set of cousins on her uncle’s side—and the couple’s namesake foundation—say otherwise.
“People who say the collection wasn’t hers anymore are being unfair and degrading to my aunt,” she told the WSJ. said. “I’m fighting for her.”
On the other side is one of the couple’s longtime employees, historian Kyriakos Koutsomallis, who manages the art collection of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation in Athens, which claims a right to some of the disputed art.
He and the foundation are currently transforming a neoclassical mansion in Athens to become a 12-story museum that’s expected to display at least some of the Goulandris collection when it opens early next year.
Koutsomallis, along with relatives on Basil Goulandris’s side of the family, claim the most valuable pieces of the couple’s art collection—83 works— were quietly sold to an offshore company several years before Goulandris died and should not be part of any inheritance claims – yet the works are still in the family’s collection and Zaimis has charged there was a scheme to keep them away from his relatives.
Twenty nine of those 83 paintings—including some choice works like Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 Olive Pickers —have since been redirected back to the foundation, Koutsomallis has said in court papers, and are therefore not part of the widow’s estate. No one will say where the remaining works are located.
Zaimis has an arrangement with a longtime New York private dealer, Ezra Chowaiki, to pay the court costs in exchange for getting first dibs for the rights to sell any paintings if they revert to her. The case began in Greece but has since shifted to Switzerland and Lichtenstein, adding to the international air of mystery.
THE WILL FACTOR
Goulandris died in 1994 without a will. After his death at age 81, relatives from his side of the family say they told his widow that in 1985 Mr. Goulandris had sold off the 83 gems of the couple’s collection to a Panamanian company controlled by his side of the family called Wilton Trading, the Journal reported.
Despite his long-time wealth, Goulandris was in debt then, the relatives say, and sold them for the relatively paltry price of $31.7 million. His wife said then she knew nothing of it but later went along with it, relatives said in court documents.
She died six years after her husband and left a vague will in which she didn’t mention the 83 paintings and bequeathed only “antiquarian objects of value” to the family’s Athens foundations for a possible museum, adding to the uncertainty.
Zaimis—who is one of the six named beneficiaries—doesn’t believe the sale ever happened. She said she doubts her uncle would have sold off his prized collection without telling his wife or getting a fair market price for the works.
She said believes her uncle’s relatives absconded with the art after her aunt died and then produced an elaborate tale to suit their agenda.
Jean-Christophe Diserens, a Swiss lawyer who represents the foundation and Koutsomallis, told the Journal in an email that “nobody but Ms. Zaimis and her sponsors contest the validity” of Goulandris’ sale of the 83 paintings.
Koutsomallis gave Zaimis an inventory listing she said that included Ms. Goulandris’s assets, such as houses and an array of household goods like cutlery.
“Where are the valuable things, the paintings?” she said she asked him. That’s when she said she first heard about the sale and how the remaining art had funneled to the foundation.
Chowaiki said it took years before he or Ms. Zaimis could piece together the back story of the alleged $31.7 million sale in 1985. Even now, he said he doesn’t believe it ever happened.
Zaimis, who lives half an hour away from the museum site now under construction, says she is monitoring its development. “I’m keeping my walls empty until my paintings come home to me,” she said.