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Greek Heiress sues for works by Picasso, Monet, Degas and others

February 21, 2013
"Still Life: Coffee Pot" by Vincent Van Gogh. It is among the paintings that belonged to Basil and Elise Goulandris and was exhibited in 1999 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Andros.

“Still Life: Coffee Pot” by Vincent Van Gogh is among the paintings that belonged to Greek shipping magnate Basil Goulandris and his wife Elise.

Greek shipping heiress Aspasia Zaimis is suing in Swiss court to discover the whereabouts of what Bloomberg says is a “billion-dollar collection” of art amassed by her uncle Basil Goulandris and his wife Elise and once kept in their chalet in Gstaad. Zaimis, “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.”

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.

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 [in 2000].

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, [Koutsomallis' lawyer Jean- Christophe] 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.

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.

No doubt, this will go on for sometime. Should Zaimis win, the Bloomberg article contains this clue about what may become of the paintings: ‘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.”’

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