Dealer’s Estate Sues Nahmad Gallery Seeking Return of Modigliani Portrait

The prolonged ownership dispute goes into the next round.

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

The estate of a Paris art dealer filed a suit against the Nahmad family in New York State Supreme Court on Tuesday over the restitution of a $25 million Nazi looted portrait by Amedeo Modigliani purportedly in the possession of the Nahmads, the New York Times reports.

The same court dismissed a previous attempt by the original owner’s grandson, 71-year-old Philippe Maestracci, to secure the return of Modigliani’s Seated Man With a Cane (1918) in 2012, after a judge ruled the France-based claimant lacked standing to pursue the case in the US.

The suit alleges that family patriarch David Nahmad controls International Art Center. Photo: letemps.ch

The suit alleges that family patriarch David Nahmad controls International Art Center, the company that owns the disputed painting.
Photo: letemps.ch

According to court documents, Maestracci’s latest claim has been refiled by the administrator of the estate of his grandfather—the Jewish art dealer Oscar Stettiner—who was forced to leave the Modigliani and other artworks behind when he fled Paris in 1939. The Nazis appointed an administrator to control Sttetiner’s gallery holdings in 1941, and several paintings were sold at auctions. Stettiner tried to reclaim the Modigliani as well as other works in 1946, but was not able to locate them. He died in France in 1948.

Maestracci’s attorneys claim that the corporation that owns the picture, International Art Center, is a shell company for the Nahmad family’s New York and London galleries.

They allege that the company was formed in Panama by a lawyer who is listed as the company’s director and of at least 11,000 other companies, and that the company has no employees.

David Nahmad's son Helly was previously accused of by the claimants of hiding the artwork. Photo: artmarketmonitor.com

David Nahmad’s son Helly was previously accused by the claimants of hiding the artwork.
Photo: artmarketmonitor.com

“This is one large enterprise that is a scheme to move these things around, and they are all alter egos for one another,” Joel M. Aurnou, a lawyer for the estate administrator told the NYT. “It’s all one operation.”

The suit also contains new allegations claiming that Nahmad Gallery employees prepared invoices for International Art Center and asked clients to make payments to the corporation in Geneva—where the disputed painting is stored in a freeport.

However the Nahmad Gallery insists they do not own or control International Art Center, which bought the Modigliani at auction in 1996. Aaron Richard Golub, a lawyer who represents both the Nahmad family and International Art Center, said the allegations have “no substance whatsoever.”

“We are confident that this case will be dismissed,” he said, adding that there is no evidence that Stettiner ever owned the painting. He described Maestracci’s advisors as professional restitution claimants who track down potential artworks to reclaim.

The refiling of the case is the latest development in a prolonged dispute that has been ongoing since 2011. In June 2014, Helly Nahmad was hit with a court summons over the painting, followed by vehement denials of any wrongdoing from his attorney.


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