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Panama Papers reveal owners of "looted" Modigliani

11th April 2016

After a week of controversial tax avoidance revelations from the Panama Papers, attention has been turned to the art world.

It has been revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), that the disputed ownership of a unique painting by Italian Jewish painter Amadeo Modigliani, may have been clarified.

Titled the ‘Seated Man With A Cane’ (1918), the painting, which is worth up to £17 million, is being claimed by the grandson of Oscar Stettiner, a Jewish gallery owner whose art was seized by the Nazis during the World War II.

However, the papers have revealed that the painting is currently owned by a company which is controlled by the Nahmad family of art dealers, who in the past have denied that it is in their possession. In court, the family had claimed that the masterpiece was held by the International Art Center (IAC), however it has in fact been controlled by the Nahmad’s for over 20 years. 

Allegedly, the art piece was purchased by the family at auction in 1996, where they paid over £2 million for the painting at Christie’s auction house in London. 

The Nahmads then tried to profit from the painting in November 2008 at Sotheby’s in New York, where they auctioned it with an estimate of inbetween £13 million to £18 million, yet there were no bids.

A legal battle

Philippe Marstracci, the grandson of Oscar Stettiner, sued the Nahmads in 2011, for the return of the painting. However, the suit was withdrawn after the family denied any ownership, claiming that it belonged to a company named the International Art Center (IAC).  

Then, in February 2014, the administrator of the Stettiner estate again sued the family, arguing that the IAC was a Panamanian shell company.

According to the ICIJ reports, the leaked documents show that “the Nahmad family has controlled the Panama-based company International Art Center (IAC) for more than 20 years… David Nahmad, the family leader, has been the company’s sole owner since January 2014.”

Richard Golub, David Nahmad’s lawyer was confronted by journalists about the revelations. 

“Whoever owns IAC is irrelevant. The main thing is: what are the issues in the [ongoing] case, and can the plaintiff prove them?” he commented. 

Modern art

A number of modern art pieces which were sold at auction at Christie’s New York in November 1997, have also been in question. 

According to ICIJ, the work which was collected by Victor and Sally Ganz, included many classic pieces by Jasper Johns, Picasso and Robert Rauschenberg, breaking records at a value of £146.5 million, and proving a milestone in the transformation of art into a “global commodity”. 

Papers show that works from the Ganz collection were sold six months before the auction, to a company based on an island in the South Pacific. 

Further concerns

And this case isn’t the only one which highlights scandal among art works, with the ICIJ detailing other offshore dealings with other major art collectors, with the report mentioning “enough art to fill a small museum”.

Chen Dongsheng, chairman of China Guardian, has been named as one of the many rich Chinese businessmen and political figures who have moved assets offshore to avoid tax.

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