In recent art world news is a story about a treasured 1918 oil painting by Amedeo Modigliani of a seated chocolate merchant in a hat and tie holding a cane (“Seated Man with a Cane”). Art dealer and billionaire David Nahmad is principal of the Nahmad holding company (International Art Center) that purchased the work at auction in 1996 and has owned it since then.
The grandson of a Jewish antiques dealer, however, claims that the Modigliani painting is the same work that was stolen from his relative’s shop in Paris during the Nazi occupation and sold off over 70 years ago.
For nearly five years, the grandson, Philippe Maestracci, and the Mondex Corporation, a company specializing in the recovery of looted art on behalf of beneficiaries, have pursued a claim in New York state and federal courts for the work, which was once estimated to be valued at around $25 million.
Nahmad, a scion of a family of international art dealers, remains determined that he will not settle the case. In support of his position, the art dealer relies on an obscure French court document dated 1947 that he asserts raises doubt as to whether his painting is the same Modigliani painting that antiques dealer, Oscar Stettiner, had tried to recover after the Second World War. The court document, which was filed in connection with Stettiner’s claim in 1946 to recover the painting, describes the work as a “Modigliani self-portrait” and not as a painting of a chocolate merchant.
Conflicting evidence cited by Maestracci includes the provenance listing when Nahmad’s holding company attempted to sell the disputed painting through Sotheby’s in 2008. The auction house listed Stettiner as a possible previous owner of the painting and indicated that the painting had been sold anonymously between 1940 and 1945.
Nahmad is determined to fight on in the courts, but has said if it is proven that the painting is looted art by the Nazis, he will return it.
For further information on this prolonged dispute since 2011, see Dealer’s Estate Sues Nahmad Gallery Seeking Return of Modigliani Portrait and The Art of Secrecy.