DALLAS (CN) – The Dallas Museum of Art and five of its well-heeled trustees conspired to defraud the sole heir of a wealthy collector of a $400 million art collection, including paintings by Van Gogh, Manet, Cezanne and Renoir, the man claims in Federal Court.
During her long life, Wendy Russell Reves aka Wyn-Nelle Russell Reves had been a fashion model, socialite and philanthropist; her death in March 2007 at the age of 91 was the subject of newspaper coverage on both sides of the Atlantic.
In his complaint, Arnold Leon Schroeder Jr., Reves’ son by the first of her three husbands, claims the art museum and its board members took advantage of the loneliness, alcoholism and dementia of his mother’s final years to pull off an intricate scheme to convert the artwork for the museum.
Named as defendants are Kern Wildenthal, Edward A. Copley, Harry S. Parker III, George Charlton, Irvin Levy, and The Dallas Museum of Art.
Schroeder says the art had been collected by his mother’s last husband, the writer and publisher Emery Reves, who gained fame as a biographer of Sir Winston Churchill. The two met in the 1940s in Switzerland, and eventually moved into Coco Chanel’s former villa, La Pausa, in France.
During these years Emery Reves assembled the collection of more than 1,400 paintings, sculptures and other decorative works. The couple was married in 1961, and remained together until his death in 1981.
“During his lifetime, with the assistance of prominent attorneys, Emery set up an elaborate web of corporate entities to hold his various assets, primarily to avoid substantial taxation under applicable French law,” the complaint states.
Among the assets was the art collection and his mother’s fortune, Schroeder says. When Emery died, all of his assets passed to his wife.
However, Schroeder says, “Once Emery was no longer on the scene, three members of the DMA, namely Parker, Charlton, and Levy, (‘the DMA Members’) called upon Wendy at Villa LA Pausa and made their pitch for the collection.”
The complaint continues: “Wendy, by now a lonely widow and chronic alcoholic, was persuaded by their Texas charm and flattery to disregard Emery’s intentions for the collection and donated it instead to the DMA. As described above, Emery had wished for Villa LA Pausa to be converted to a museum to display the collection publicly in France within its natural surroundings. Instead, the DMA Members convinced Wendy that Emery’s spirit would be as appeased if the DMA built a replica of several of the rooms of Villa La Pausa within the museum in which the Collection would be displayed, which is in fact what the DMA ultimately did.”
To circumvent France’s compulsory heirship rule and restrictions set forth in Emery’s various tax avoidance vehicles, the conspirators “schemed to strip away these legal protections and asked Wendy to sign various documents to execute a series of sham transfers that purported to move the collection … to the DMA,” the complaint states.
To do this, Schroeder says, the defendants created an entity in Texas, the Wendy and Emery Reves Foundation (WERF). Then they asked his mother to sign a donation agreement between the organization and the museum.
“Once the DMA received the Collection, WERF (Texas) was dissolved, with the result that the DMA purported to actually acquire title to the works of art,” the compliant states. “However, WERF (New York) is still in existence.
“Subsequently, the Collection was packed up from Villa La Pausa in plain boxes without identifying labels and flown by private jet to Texas. Thus, $400 million of unique artifacts and paintings quietly disappeared from France and neatly evaded French taxes that would have been as high as 60 percent. In fact, the DMA states in the forward to a catalogue of the Collection that this was a gift by Wendy of ‘her collection.’
“In addition to defrauding the French government, this stealth transfer was designed to defraud the plaintiff from his half-share of the Collection under rigid French laws regarding lifetime gifts in the context of reserved heirship,” the complaint states.
Schroeder seeks return of the artwork and damages for fraud, conspiracy, tortious interference with inheritance rights, conversion and misapplication of fiduciary property.
He is represented by Valeri C. Williams with Figari & Davenport.