No, Helly Nahmad Is Not Hiding a $20 Million Nazi-Looted Modigliani

The jail-bound dealer's lawyer says there is a case for restitution.

Helly Nahmad at the Dream Hotel, NYC, February 13, 2012. Photo by Patrick McMullan Company, Inc.

Manhattan art dealer Helly Nahmad is in no way hiding a painting looted by Nazis, his lawyer, Richard Golub, assures artnet News.

In 2011, Philippe Maestracci filed a complaint in federal court against Helly Nahmad (both the gallery and the individual), his father David Nahmad, and the International Art Center (IAC) in federal court. Maestracci maintains that Amedeo Modigliani’s painting, Seated Man with a Cane (1918), now the property of the IAC, belonged to his grandfather, Jewish art dealer Oscar Stettiner, but was stolen by Nazis during their occupation of France during World War Two.

Golub contends that Maestracci withdrew his complaint in March of 2012 because the judge was about to dismiss it. “Judge Stanton, based on only reading the plaintiff’s table of contents, indicated that the case had no place in the federal court,” Golub told artnet News in a phone conversation.

The case has been dormant for more than two years. Now, Maestracci has revived his claim, serving a summons with notice, together with an order to show cause, asking New York State court to allow him to discover information about the IAC. According to the New York Times, the Geneva, Switzerland-based corporation is owned by the Nahmad family, and has an estimated $3–4 billion in art holdings.

The IAC purchased the artwork in question at an auction at Christie’s in London in June of 1996. At the time, Helly Nahmad had just graduated from New York’s Dalton School. Being just 18 years of age at the time, he had not yet begun his career as an art dealer.

“If anyone wants to point a finger at someone for selling Nazi-looted art, they should remember my clients bought the painting innocently at auction,” says Golub. “To say Helly Nahmad or any other defendant was involved in any Nazi loot scheme is flatly false.”

Amedeo Modigliani, Seated Man with a Cane (1918).

Amedeo Modigliani, Seated Man With a Cane (1918).

In the 2011 lawsuit, the defendants filed a declaration that accounted, in detail, for the painting’s whereabouts since the 1996 Christie’s sale. Aside from being shown at various galleries and museums (including, for about three months in 2005–06, at Helly Nahmad Gallery in Manhattan), the painting has been stored by Rodolphe Haller SA at the Geneva Freeport since March of 1997. Helly Nahmad stated in a declaration that neither he nor his gallery ever owned the painting.

As artnet News reported earlier this week, a recent article in the New York Post alleged that Nahmad has hid the $20 million painting, but the declaration, a matter of public record, clearly discloses the painting’s whereabouts in Switzerland.

As for the new summons, Golub is quick to point out that “there is no complaint. I want to make that emphatic. I don’t know why they haven’t presented a complaint, if they have a case.”

The summons is instead an example of pre-action discovery, as the information is being requested before a formal lawsuit will likely be filed. This is unusual, but is allowed under New York State rule CPLR § 3102(c) in instances where disclosure will “aid in bringing an action.”

Although Golub rejects claims that the IAC is a “murky corporation,” claiming that “every single gallery in the world is incorporated” and that the IAC is “well-known throughout the art world,” the summons does seek to disclose details about the company’s operations.

According to a 2012 report in the Art Newspaper: “International Art Center is an offshore entity used by the Nahmad defendants as an instrumentality to hold their interests in works, around 90 percent of which are held in an art storage facility at the free port of Geneva.”

Beyond the current summons, Maestracci’s primary objective is evidently the recovery of the painting that he believes is rightfully his. That may prove difficult.

“I have never seen any documentation that Stettiner owned the painting,” says Golub, who claims to have read extensive paperwork submitted by the plaintiff during the previously dismissed suit. He believes this story has been blown out of proportion thanks to Helly Nahmad’s recent gambling conviction. “Everybody should await the outcome of this case and see who wins. Then they should write about it.”

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