David Nahmad

David Nahmad Admits Ownership of Disputed Modigliani Painting

After Swiss prosecutors seized a Modigliani painting from storage that the art-dealing family the Nahmads denied they owned, Doreen Carvajal reports in the New York Times that dealer David Nahmad has now admitted he is the current owner of the painting Seated Man with a Cane, 1918. However, Nahmad claims that it is not the same work that once belonged to the prewar Jewish art dealer Oscar Stettiner and should not be subject to Stettiner’s heir Philippe Maestracci’s restitution claim.

Nahmad notes in the Times interview, in his defense, that he previously lent the painting in question to the Jewish Museum in New York in 2004 for an exhibition: “If you had any doubt about looted art, would you really lend it to a Jewish museum?” He also cites a 1947 French court document located by his researcher in a Paris archive amid the files on the original claim submitted by Stettiner. The document is from a French bailiff who presided over Stettiner’s 1946 restitution case and refers to the painting Stettiner sought as “a picture representing the painter Modigliani painted by himself.” The document is legally sealed until 2022, but Nahmad has applied for an exemption to examine it. James Palmer, of Mondex Corporation, is representing Maestracci and has seen the court document, though he is not persuaded by it: “The bailiff is not an art expert . . . It’s pretty easy for a bailiff to make that kind of mistake.”

Seated Man with a Cane is regarded not as a self-portrait of the artist but as an image of a chocolate merchant. Even so, Maestracci has noted in his continued efforts to win back the painting that when the Nahmads’ holding company International Art Center unsuccessfully tried to sell the disputed work through Sotheby’s in 2008 the provenance listed included Stettiner as a possible previous owner and that it had been sold anonymously in Paris between 1940 and 1945.

When Philippe Maestracci originally took the Nahmads to court to get the painting back, the case was withdrawn after the Nahmads stated that the painting was not owned by them but by a company named International Art Center. But in 2014, Maestracci took the Nahmads to court again, saying that International Art Center is a Panamanian shell company and an “alter ego of David Nahmad and other Nahmad family members.” As the Mossack Fonseca papers have shown, International Art Center does belong to the Nahmads and has been owned by them since 1995. In the Times article, David Nahmad finally admits his role in the shell company: “The International Art Center is me personally . . . It’s David Nahmad.” He claims he is ready to fight in court but in the meantime is weighing invitations to exhibit the piece and is considering loaning it to a museum in Israel. He also said, “If it’s proven that this painting is looted by the Nazis, I will give it back.”