A Greek heiress is fighting a legal battle in Switzerland to find out what has become of a collection of Picasso, Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne and Degas art that she says should be part of her inheritance.
Aspasia Zaimis’s uncle, Basil Goulandris, was a billionaire shipping magnate who spent the winter months in the Alpine resort of Gstaad with his wife Elise. The Greek couple amassed a billion-dollar collection that they displayed in their chalet.
Basil Goulandris died in 1994; his wife Elise in 2000. Zaimis, a legatee in Elise Goulandris’s will, contends that one- sixth of the collection should be hers after her aunt’s death.
“I am determined to find the paintings which were in the Gstaad home before my aunt’s death,” Zaimis said by phone from Greece. “I believe with all my heart that the paintings were part of my inheritance.”
Her quest has uncovered a paper trail leading from the Aegean island of Andros to Swiss depots; from a Panama trading company to a Liechtenstein foundation, according to two people familiar with the lawsuit who declined to be identified by name.
The case now winding through a Lausanne court is examining whether a sale contract dated 1985 for 83 masterpieces -- at a price far below their value -- is genuine, the people said.
“I do not believe that Basil sold his collection,” Zaimis said. “They were so proud of it. I cannot imagine he would have sold it for this price.”
Swiss prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the Elise Goulandris Foundation -- Elise’s main heir -- and the executor of her will, the art historian and curator Kyriakos Koutsomallis, on suspicion of falsifying titles of ownership, passing on false documents and duplicity in executing the will, the people said. They declined to be identified by name because of privacy restrictions in Swiss lawsuits.
When Elise Goulandris left Gstaad for the summer, the paintings were packed up and stored in a depot, according to the two people familiar with the case. Zaimis said she hasn’t seen them since Elise’s death.
A beauty who had counted the former French President Valery Giscard D’Estaing among her friends, Elise died while summering on the Aegean in her yacht. She had written her will in Greek and in code, according to the two people.
The Elise Goulandris Foundation, the chief beneficiary of her will, plans to finance the construction of a contemporary art museum in Athens, according to Koutsomallis’s lawyer, Jean- Christophe Diserens of Etude Villa Olivier in Lausanne. Goulandris also named six legatees including Zaimis, Diserens wrote in a response to e-mailed questions.
Diserens denied any wrongdoing by his client.
“The manner in which Mr. Koutsomallis fulfilled his mission as executor of the will has been approved by the heirs and Mrs. Zaimis’s co-legatees,” Diserens wrote.
The critical sentence in Elise’s will is that all her personal property that is not antique and fit for a museum should go to her nieces and nephews, said the two people, who have seen the will. Zaimis says the paintings aren’t antiques and should be part of her inheritance.
After she filed suit, Diserens produced a contract dated 1985 showing that Basil Goulandris sold 83 masterpieces to a Panamanian company called Wilton Trading SA for $31.7 million, the people said. The company belonged to Goulandris’s sister-in- law Maria Goulandris, according to testimony given by her son Peter John Goulandris, the two people familiar with the court case said. Maria Goulandris died in 2005.
Yet a report commissioned by the Lausanne prosecutor found that the contract was printed on a type of paper that didn’t exist before 1988, according to the two people, who have seen the report. Zaimis also said she doubts that Basil Goulandris, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, would have been capable of signing the contract after 1988.
“He couldn’t lift plates and glasses,” she said.
The Lausanne prosecutor handling the case, Nicolas Cruchet, declined to be interviewed for this article. Diserens said he wouldn’t comment on the disputed contract, as he didn’t wish “to put into the public arena an inheritance conflict which should only be of interest to the judges.”
Basil Goulandris took over the family-owned Orion Shipping & Trading Company in 1950, according to the website of the foundation established by the couple. He was honorary chairman of the Association of Greek Ship Owners and a member of the board of directors of the American Bureau of Shipping, the website says.
In 1992, Fortune magazine estimated his wealth at $1.5 billion. In 1995, the year after his death, Forbes estimated the family’s fortune at around $1.6 billion.
The art historian Nicholas Fox Weber remembers visiting the Goulandris’s Gstaad home in 1991 to research his biography of the French painter Balthus, a friend of the couple. Goulandris was weakened by illness and deteriorating physically and mentally, Fox Weber said.
“Elise Goulandris was very beautiful, very warm and welcoming and likeable” when he arrived at the chalet, Fox Weber said by telephone from San Francisco.
“Then I saw this Cezanne painting from 1906 of his gardener, and I was knocked off my feet,” he said. “Every painting they had was of that caliber. They weren’t just works by famous artists, they were the very quintessence of those artists.”
Among the artworks in the list of 83 attached to the disputed sales contract are 11 by Picasso, three by Braque, five Cezanne paintings, three by Marc Chagall, two by Degas, two Gauguins, two Max Ernsts, two Manets, two Miros, two Monets, three Renoirs, two Jackson Pollock oils, a Matisse, a Klee and a Kandinsky, two people familiar with the document said.
An evaluation of a third of the works by Armand Bartos, Jr. Fine Art Inc., put their worth at $781.4 million. That evaluation includes a Van Gogh painting of olive pickers which Bartos said could alone be worth $120 million, and a Cezanne self-portrait that he valued at $60 million.
Peter John Goulandris, the son of Basil Goulandris’s brother, told the court his uncle wanted to raise money to pay debts and was therefore happy to agree to the $31.7 million price for the entire collection, two people familiar with the suit said.
The paintings continued to hang in the Gstaad chalet until Elise’s death, Zaimis said. Peter John Goulandris told the Lausanne court that under the terms of the sale, his mother Maria Goulandris allowed her brother-in-law to borrow paintings for the chalet, the people said.
Yet Zaimis said that right until her death, Elise Goulandris treated the paintings as her own.
“Everything was in Switzerland, in Gstaad, but not all of it was on show,” Zaimis said. “She used to change the display from one year to the next and she had some of the paintings in France. She considered the collection as hers, and made a point of telling everyone it was hers.”
Asked whether there was any suggestion that the paintings he saw in the Gstaad chalet in 1991 were on loan to the Goulandris couple, Fox Weber, who said he gave testimony in the Lausanne court in 2010, replied “absolutely not.”
Long after the date of the sales contract, Basil Goulandris continued to dispose of the artworks on the list as though they were his own, the people familiar with the lawsuit said. Included among the 83 works are two Claude Monet oils-on-canvas of Rouen cathedral.
Goulandris sold one to Galerie Beyeler AG in 1990, the people said. Claudia Neugebauer, a spokeswoman for the Basel gallery, confirmed that Goulandris sold a Monet in 1990 and that Beyeler in turn sold it to Nomura Securities Co. in Tokyo that year. She declined to reveal the price, saying the gallery archive “does not indicate further information.”
Goulandris also loaned the paintings for exhibitions. The Villa Medicis in Rome confirmed in a 2009 letter that he lent a painting by Balthus for an exhibition there in 1990, according to the two people, who said they had seen the documents.
In 1993, the Museum of Modern Art in New York borrowed a Miro painting, “Paysage (La Sauterelle)” for an exhibition. Though the painting is on the list of works sold to Wilton Trading in 1985, insurance documents give the name of the assured party as Basil Goulandris, the people said.
Bonnard at Auction
Since Elise Goulandris’s death, some of the paintings have been sold, the people said. An oil by Pierre Bonnard, “Jeune fille s’essuyant” (Young Girl Drying Herself) was offered at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art auction in London in 2005.
In the provenance section, the catalog named Basil P. Goulandris as a previous owner and said the work came from a private European collection. That description would apply neither to Panama-based Wilton Trading, nor to Maria Goulandris, who lived in New York.
Peter John Goulandris told the court that in mid-1992, his mother Maria donated part of the collection to a foundation registered in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, called Fondation Sirina, the two people said. The foundation’s purpose is described in its statute as “promoting art in Greece and financing charitable organizations in Greece,” the people said. Goulandris said his mother also gave some works to him and his sister, they said.
In 1999, the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation held an exhibition of 29 of the artworks on the list at their Museum of Contemporary Art on Andros. Elise Goulandris wrote a foreword for the catalog, “Classics of Modern Art,” which makes no mention of lenders, though she does thank those who contributed texts for the catalog and her colleagues.
Peter John Goulandris directed an e-mail enquiry to his lawyer, Dennis Glazer of Davis Polk in New York. Glazer declined to answer questions about the 1985 sale contract. He said he considers Zaimis’s claims to be “baseless.”
“Elise’s other nieces and nephews have not joined in Mrs. Zaimis’s actions, considering her claims to be invalid,” Glazer wrote in an e-mail. Elise Goulandris’s “widely known wishes” were for some artworks to be displayed in a museum to be constructed in Athens, Glazer wrote.
“Property has been acquired for this museum and advanced plans and preparations are under way for its construction,” he wrote. “The paintings in question were part of a private sales transaction agreed between Mr. Basil Goulandris and Wilton Trading S.A. almost ten years prior to his death.”
Zaimis and her sister, Evanthea Veroutis-Anastasadi, together inherited a third of Elise Goulandris’s private estate, the people familiar with the will said. Co-legatees are Fleurette Karadontis, another niece of Elise, who inherited one- third. The three Canada-based children of Elise Goulandris’s brother, Robert and Edward Karadontis and Elise Karadontis Oliveira, together account for the last third.
Jacques Haldy, a Lausanne lawyer, wrote in an e-mail that he represents all the legatees aside from Zaimis. His clients, he said, oppose Zaimis’s legal endeavors. “They condemn them strongly and consider them completely unjustified,” he wrote.
Zaimis’s legal action is being partly financed by a New York art dealer, Ezra Chowaiki, who described himself as a friend and said that in return for his aid he has “a right of first refusal to purchase paintings that she might obtain.”
The case has “stripped her of all her resources,” Chowaiki said by e-mail. His gallery, Chowaiki & Co., specializes in Impressionist and modern art.
“Aspa is fighting against very wealthy adversaries,” he said. “I am not surprised that her adversaries are upset about the fact that they were not able to incapacitate her.”
Zaimis said she can’t understand why her sister and cousins are not joining her quest.
“It’s a big mystery,” said Zaimis. “Nothing makes any sense.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.