Case Review: Maestracci v. Helly Nahmad Gallery Inc. (2014)

By Madeleine Werker*

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Amedeo Modigliani, Seated Man with a Cane (1918)

At the core of Maestracci v. Helly Nahmad Gallery Inc., case filed in 2014 is the battle for ownership of an Amedeo Modigliani painting, Seated Man with a Cane (1918) (the “Painting”) valued at 25 million USD. The release of the Panama Papers in April 2016 revealed new information about the Painting, which could assist in settling the ownership conflict in court.

According to the complaint, Seated Man with a Cane was first exhibited at the 1930 Venice Biennale, where the so-called self-portrait was listed as number 35 in the catalogue. It belonged to Oscar Stettiner, a Jewish art dealer in Paris. Stettiner fled Paris in 1939 during the Nazi occupation of France, leaving his gallery and his artworks behind. After the war, in 1946, Stettiner attempted to retrieve the work by filing a French civil claim for “a Modigliani portrait of a man”, among other items, without success. Stettiner died in France in 1948 never having found the Painting.

In their filings, Plaintiff(s) allege that in 1941, Stettiner’s gallery was taken over by Nazi-appointed administrator, Marcel Philippon, who held four public auctions of the gallery’s inventory. In July 1944, the painting, listed as Selt Portrait of the Artist, was sold at the French auction house, Drouot, to John Van der Klip for 16,000 francs.[3] Although the painting was thought to have been resold in a series of unknown transactions, a May 2016 letter from Van de Klip’s descendants confirmed that the Modigliani stayed in the family and was passed down “by descent to the present owners” until the 1996 Christie’s London auction, where it was sold to the International Art Centre (“IAC”) for 3.2 million USD.[3]

At the time of the sale, the painting had not been flagged as a potential Nazi-looted artwork. The Christie’s catalogue entry noted that the painting had been sold in an anonymous sale in Paris between 1940 and 1945, and mistakenly attributed provenance to known French collector Roger Dutilleul. Christie’s cited the painting as number 16 from the 1930 Venice Biennale, not number 35.[4] This later complicated the painting’s identification.

In 2008, the Painting resurfaced and was relisted in the Sotheby’s New York catalogue (valued at 18-25 million USD). The 2008 catalogue listing cited the painting’s owner as the IAC and attributed provenance “possibly” to Roger Dutilleul and to Stettiner. The catalogue also re-listed the work as number 35, not 16, from the 1930 Venice Biennale. Two letters subpoenaed from Sotheby’s in April 2016, as part of the ongoing lawsuit, show an executive at Sotheby’s addressing Helly Nahmad Gallery as the painting’s consignor.

The Painting failed to sell at the 2008 auction and disappeared until the release of the Panama Papers led to its retrieval from the Geneva Freeport.

In 2009, Mondex Corporation, a Toronto firm that specializes in recovering Nazi-looted art, began putting together the painting’s history. Founder James Palmer then contacted Philippe Maestracci, an Italian citizen and Stettiner’s only heir, who agreed to have Mondex pursue the research on his behalf. Before this, Maestracci was not aware of his grandfather’s connection to the painting.

This pursuit led Maestracci to the US federal court where he sued the Helly Nahmad Gallery for the Painting in 2011. The Nahmads, a wealthy family of art dealers long believed to be in possession of the painting, denied ownership,[9] instead maintaining that the IAC owned the Painting independently after purchasing it in 1996. Maestracci later withdrew the amended federal court complaint over jurisdictional issues.

In February 2014 the Stettiner estate re-filed its suit against David Nahmad, Helly Nahmad (both the gallery and the individual), and the IAC with the New York Supreme Court.[11] In November 2015, when a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that France-based Maestracci lacked standing to pursue the case in the United States, Maestracci amended his claim to make George Gowen, the New York administrator of Stettiner’s estate, the sole plaintiff in the case. The November filing alleged that the IAC was a “shell company” set up by the Nahmad family “to conceal and confuse their identities, and hide revenues…stemming from their art dealings.”[11]

Until recently Maestracci’s claim has not seen much success, but this all changed in April 2016 with the release of the Panama Papers, leaked documents from the Mossack Fonseca law firm, which linked various wealthy individuals to offshore companies. Originally published on April 3, 2016, the papers revealed the location and ownership of the painting that Maestracci sought to reclaim. The documents confirm the link between the Nahmads and the IAC.[12] Mossack Fonseca set up the IAC as a Panama-based company for the Nahmads in 1995. David Nahmad, has been the company’s sole owner since January 2014.

David Nahmad relies on two key points in denying Maestracci’s claim to the painting. First, according to Nahmad, the price fetched for the painting in 1944 was too low, even in an anonymous sale during wartime. Second, Nahmad cites Stettiner’s 1946 claim in which he referred to the painting as a self-portrait of the artist in a notation taken by a court bailiff.[14] Nahmad believes this proves that the work in question is, in fact, a different painting. Nahmad supported his position with the assertion that the family loaned the painting out a number of times, including to the Jewish Museum in 2004. Nahmad, who is Jewish, insists he would never accept Nazi-looted art. He has told Radio-Canada, “I could not sleep at night if I knew I owned a looted object”.[16] For now, the Nahmads are prepared to take their defense to the courts. However, Ezra Nahmad has said that if Maestracci “can provide concrete proof that this piece of art truly belongs to him, then [he] will gladly give it to him.”[15]

The New York State Supreme Court case, George Gowen v. Helly Nahmad Gallery Inc., 650646/2014, is ongoing. The last set of motions was filed in March 2017.

Select Sources:

  1. Maestracci Affidavit, Exhibit A: Nature of Action, ¶ 16 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 9).
  2. Livengood Letter, Ex 72, 3 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 941).
  3. Maestracci Affidavit, Exhibit G: Christie’s Listing (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 25).
  4. Maestracci Affidavit, Exhibit A: Nature of Action, ¶ 30 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 9).
  5. Sotheby’s Letters 2-11-10 and 4-28-10 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 768,769)
  6. Maestracci Affidavit, Exhibit B: Sotheby’s Catalogue, ¶ 32-33 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 9).
  7. Golub Affidavit, ¶ 3 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 918).
  8. Motion Sequence No. 7, 22 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 378).
  9. Maestracci Notice With Summons, 2 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 1)
  10. Verified Amended and Supplemental Complaint (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 489).
  11. Verified Amended and Supplemental Complaint, ¶ 2 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 489).
  12. Maestracci Affidavit, Exhibit M: Panama Registry (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 69).
  13. Exhibit 1: Letter from Geneva Ministere public (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 917).
  14. Julian Sher, Modigliani masterpiece seized in wake of Panama Papers (CBC: Apr 11, 2016) available here; Schub Affirmation, ¶ 31 (NYSCEF DOC. NO. 929).
  15. Amah-Rose Abrams, David Nahmad Denies Modigliani Painting Is Nazi Loot (Art Net: June 13, 2016) available here; Fern Sidman, Ezzy Nahmad: “If the Gentleman Can Prove Rightful Ownership, I Will Gladly Give Him the Painting” (The Jewish Voice: May 4, 2016) available here.

About the Author: Madeleine Werker received her J.D. from the University of Ottawa, Canada in 2017. Before law school, she obtained her Bachelor of Art in Art History and Cultural Studies from McGill University in Montreal.

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