Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kenyan ranch in the spotlight as widow seeks Sh900bn inheritance

Alec, the step-son of Sylvia Wildenstein (during her younger days), owns the 66,000-acre Ol Jogi Ranch in Laikipia. Ms Wildenstein has battled for eight years through Paris courts to secure rights to her inheritance, which she claims her stepsons had tricked her out of. Photos/ceciliarodhe.com and cavadeos.com

Alec, the step-son of Sylvia Wildenstein (during her younger days), owns the 66,000-acre Ol Jogi Ranch in Laikipia. Ms Wildenstein has battled for eight years through Paris courts to secure rights to her inheritance, which she claims her stepsons had tricked her out of. Photos/ceciliarodhe.com and cavadeos.com 

By MUGUMO MUNENE

A ranch in Kenya is at the heart of an inheritance tussle in Paris, France.

The 66,000-acre property, located 40 kilometres from Nanyuki town, is the private home of one of the world’s wealthiest families.

A widow in her mid-70s is at the centre of the court battle in Paris whose tale of fortune, misery, heartache, best-kept-business secrets and enormous wealth stretches from a nuclear bunker in New York to the plains stretching out of the foot of Mt Kenya.

Ms Sylvia Wildenstein, 76, the widow of art collector Daniel Wildenstein, has battled for eight years through Paris courts to secure rights to her inheritance, which she claims her stepsons had tricked her out of.

She continues her fight to lift the lid on the scope of the family’s fortune and art collection, thought to be one of the largest private collections in the world.

Art collections attract little interest in Africa but are enormously valued in Western countries. Fabulously wealthy. Stinking rich. Loaded. Flush. Moneyed. Opulent. Affluent.

Words fail to capture the extent of the wealth of the Wildenstein family, one of the world’s most powerful art-dealing dynasties, and it’s little wonder that Sylvia is seeking 8.6 billion British pounds (about Sh963 billion), according to last week’s edition of UK newspaper Sunday Times.

The money she seeks is about Sh100 billion more than the Kenya Government’s 2009/2010 budget.

Numerous accounts on the internet show that the family empire had been founded in Alsace in 1875 by Nathan Wildenstein, a cloth merchant who began to deal in valuable works of art.

Much of the family’s collections are said to be housed in a nuclear bunker in the Catskill mountains, New York state. The family kept a long tradition of secrets, running a close-knit business (works of art in Europe and America are adored for authenticity) until 1997 when an explosive divorce case involving one of the heirs to the multi-billion-dollar fortune spilt the beans.

Alec Wildenstein, a step-son of Sylvia, is the man whose divorce case opened the window into the tantalising secrets of the family heritage. He was born in Marseilles on August 5, 1940.

Saudi arms dealer

He married Swiss-born Jocelyne Perisse in 1978 in a ceremony at Las Vegas after the couple had been introduced a year before by Adnan Khashoggi, a multi-millionaire Saudi arms dealer, who had invited Jocelyne to stay at his Ol Pejeta Ranch in Kenya.

Wildenstein’s own estate — the 66,000-acre Ol Jogi Ranch — is nearby, and it was arranged that Jocelyne should join Alec on a dawn lion hunt. Within a year, he had proposed.

The couple moved between an apartment in Paris, a Caribbean beach estate, a château in France and a house in Lausanne, Switzerland. Their marital base was a five-storey New York town house which was also home to five pure-bred greyhound dogs and a rare monkey.

The couple turned the ranch into a private playground in the wild. In the ranch are giraffe, leopard, lion, white rhino and other big game, some imported from South Africa. It is also the only place in Africa with a bear.

Guests are generally expected to fly in, and it is not advertised on the Internet as with other exclusive resorts.

Refinements include the building of nearly 200 km of road, 55 artificial lakes, a swimming pool with rocks and waterfalls, a golf course, a racetrack, and a tennis court with floodlights — all maintained by a horde of 366 workers.

Luxurious home

According to Symbion, the company that developed it, the “project consisted of unlimited scope related to the brief which allowed Symbion to develop this luxurious private home for its owners.

A luxurious swimming pool set beneath a cascading waterfall includes tiger cages with their own swimming pools.

It has a unique bedroom chalet located at the top of the towering Ol Jogi rock Kopjes constructed with its own freeform lagoon swimming pool offering panoramic views across the plains towards Mount Kenya, says the development company.

The ranch boasts of a runway stretching 1.25 km, about the same length of the Malindi airstrip.

Determined that his wife should always outshine her rivals at Manhattan social events, Alec Wildenstein spent lavishly on her wardrobe and bought her huge quantities of jewellery.

She once spent $10 million (about Sh750 million) in one visit to Cartier, the renowned French jeweller and watchmaker. According to Jocelyne, however, her husband was a difficult man to please.

She began to fear that he was losing interest in her and, calling to mind that he liked exotic wild cats, decided that he might find her more attractive if she became “more feline”.

To achieve the desired effect, she had her pigment darkened. Unfortunately, her plastic surgery (costing a cumulative £2 million) had the opposite effect.

The first time Wildenstein saw his newly-sculpted wife, he was said to have screamed in horror, unable to recognise her.

“She seems to think that you fix a face the same way you fix a house,” he was later to complain.

But Jocelyne took his reaction as evidence that she had not gone far enough. She embarked on a series of cosmetic procedures to “improve” her looks.

By the end, her skin was stretched so tightly over her face that she could hardly blink, and her lips were so stuffed with collagen they looked like rubber.

On the night of September 3, 1997, she went unannounced to the couple’s opulent Manhattan home and found her husband in bed with a 19-year-old, long-legged Russian girl.

Alec hastily wrapped himself in a towel, grabbed a 9mm handgun and pointed it at his wife and her two bodyguards. “I wasn’t expecting anyone,” he screamed with a touch of understatement. “You’re trespassing. You don’t belong here.”

The bodyguards summoned the police, who arrested Alec. The relationship was played out acrimoniously in the courts as Jocelyne sued for divorce on the grounds of her husband’s adultery.

The details, as they poured from Jocelyne’s lips in the divorce proceeding, told the story of a family of seemingly unlimited wealth.

According to her, she and Alec “routinely wrote cheques and made withdrawals” from their Chase Manhattan Bank account “for $200,000 to $250,000 a month”.

Kenya ranch
Jocelyne said that over the last 20 years, they did “millions of dollars worth of renovations on the Paris castle and the Kenya ranch,” and she directed the management, hiring, and staff of those properties.

The routine operating costs of the ranch alone was $150,000 a month. She needed $1 million a month to run her household, she declared, because years of dependence on servants had left her with no idea of how to light a stove, make toast or boil an egg.

After a lengthy court hearing, she was awarded tens of millions of dollars, including $540,000 in back maintenance.

The judge, however, ordered that she pay for further facelifts herself and advised her to buy a microwave. Wildenstein’s legal problems were not over.

In 2005, his stepmother Sylvia – a former Israeli army sergeant – took Alec to court, claiming that he and his brother Guy had cheated her out of her inheritance on the death of their father.

The Court of Appeal in Paris ordered the brothers to pay Sylvia £10 million (about Sh1 billion).

Sourced from the Internet

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