Nahmad Modigliani Masterpiece vs Mondex The Nazi Restitution Repo Squad

Artlyst 27 August 2014

Let's face it everyone hates the Nazis! Even after 76 years the Third Reich still evokes a nauseating feeling amongst most civilised people, especially the cultured. Now just when you thought the healing process had set in, more and more cases of masterpieces looted by the Nazis seem to be emerging, igniting enormous amounts of public debate. It's enough to make any self respecting art lover, not to mention art dealer shudder.

Nazi art restitution is a growth area in law, and why not, the art market as a whole is a massive industry generating $50 billion per annum. It is also the most lucrative unregulated market after narcotics. Several companies have cropped up in recent years dealing with this industry, creating the opportunity for many niche areas to be exploited and Nazi restitution is just one of those areas.

Mondex (not the electronic cash card system) is a company founded by James Palmer, with the early assistance of his wife Yelena Yavorska AKA Mrs Palmer, this elusive Canadian company engage lawyers and accountants specialising in probate issues, finding lost heirs and missing birth parents. On the more interesting side they also track down art, stolen by the Nazis. Mondex have had some success stories. Most recently they secured the restitution of two pictures from the National Collection of the Netherlands to the heir of a Holocaust victim: the Dutch Golden Age paintings, Amsterdam Town Hall by Gerrit Berckheyde and View of a Dutch Harbour with Figures by Adam Willaerts. The paintings have now been returned to the claimant.

On a less successful note, since 2011 Mondex has attempted to secure the return of the Modigliani Masterpiece Seated Man with a Cane, which is 'allegedly' held in storage in Switzerland, by a company belonging to the prominent, art dealing David Nahmad family. The painting failed to sell at Sotheby's in 2008 and ownership is now in dispute. The Modigliani is currently being challenged in a New York court by Mondex on behalf of Phillippe Maestracci, heir and grandson of the Paris art and antiques dealer Oscar Stettiner. Lawyers for Maestracci claim that the painting was taken from Stettiner when he fled from the oppressive Vichy regime in France, in 1939.

Maestracci claims In his court complaint, "My grandfather, Oscar Stettiner: was a Jewish antiques and decorative objects retailer who resided and worked in Paris and La Force, France. He owned a personal collection of art which included the Modigliani painting Seated Man with Cane".

Court papers go on to reveal, "In 1930, Stettiner loaned the Painting to the Venice Biennale, a world-famous art exhibition that occurs every two years. The Venice Biennale catalogue listed the Painting as number 35 and as having been loaned by Stettiner".

"On or about November 20, 1939, with the threat of a Nazi invasion looming, Stettiner fled Paris, leaving behind his art collection, including the Painting by Modigliani. Stettiner fled to his home in La Force, Dordogne, France which was an unoccupied zone of France at the time. He remained in La Force until his death in 1948".

"During those proceedings, the purchaser of the Painting, John Van Der Klip, admitted that he purchased the Painting from a forced sale and that the Painting had been sold in quick succession at least twice, before 1947. In all likelihood these two sales were to Mr. Mariage eu de Saint Pierre, who in turn sold it to an American officer for 25,000 French francs at the Cafe de Rohan in October 1944. A subsequent sale was made to Mr. J. Livengood, who purchased the painting at an unspecified date".

"After World War II ended, in 1946, Stettiner commenced proceedings to recover the Painting from the Nazi-appointed Temporary Administrator who sold the Painting, Marcel Philippon, and the person who purchased the Painting on July 3, 1944, but he was unsuccessful in finding the Painting".

"Upon information and belief, prior to 2008, the Painting was exhibited and sold with an inaccurate provenance that attributed its prior ownership to someone other than Stettiner, with a claim that it was number 16 in the 1930 Venice Biennale, instead of its correct listing as number 35 in the catalogue. Copies of photographs from the Venice Biennale showing the paintings with numbers labeled below the paintings. Since the Painting was described as "Portrait of a Man" in numerous records and Modigliani painted numerous portraits of men, the misidentification made the Painting nearly impossible to trace, all the more since the Painting's provenance was misidentified"

"On or about June 25, 1996, the Painting was sold to defendants by Christie, Manson & Woods, in the United Kingdom, an affiliate of Christie's Inc. of London, England, United Kingdom. A copy of Christie's I996 catalogue entry for the Painting lists an incorrect provenance".

According to Maestracci, Stettiner’s heirs made “reasonable and diligent efforts" to find the art collection. Maestracci was alerted to Seated Man With a Cane only in 2008, when Sotheby's offered the painting in an Impressionist and Modern sale. Maestracci claimes he received no response when he wrote to the Nahmad gallery enquiring about the painting. He states, “the July 3, 1944 sale was void since it occurred without the owner's consent in violation of international law, and public policy to recognise forced sales under the Nazi regime.” The Nahmads came into possession of the painting in 1996 when it was sold through Christie's auctioneers, raising further questions about the responsibility of auctioneers selling works without a clear provenance and title.

Cases like these raise more questions than answers. The plaintiff will still have to prove title to the Modigliani and this is never an easy task, as so many years have passed. It makes one wonder where Mr Stettiner purchased the painting and if there were any other partners involved with the purchase? I would also be interested in finding out what happened in the period, after the work was exhibited at the Venice Biennale and before it wound up in the hands of the Nazi-appointed Temporary Administrator. Was the work for sale at this International exhibition? As we all know most works of art are unofficially for sale at the event and deals are done behind the scenes at the Biennale. I am also interested in seeing a full stock inventory for Mr Stettiner's collection. Was this the only valuable work of art in the collection? If not what other works of art existed and where is the documentation?

Mondex the firm representing Mr Maestracci has further problems. They seem to for one reason or another changed their legal team on numerous occasions. Court papers show that the continuity of legal assistance has altered three times since 2011, when the case was first filed. The proceedings are taking place in New York, not in Canada where Mondex is located, not in Italy where we think Mr Maestracci resides and not in Switzerland where the painting is currently stored. Is this because New York is seen as a less hostile environment to these sort of cases?

The Mondex Corporation was established for the purpose of assisting beneficiaries with the recovery of unclaimed property. Since 1989 they have developed an international reputation in forensic and probate genealogy, with expertise in resolving cases ranging from personal estates to compensation for assets and properties expropriated during World War II. If the Modigliani is to be restituted to Maestracci a clear provenance will need to be forthcoming and so far they have yet to clearly prove that the painting was owned by Oscar Stettiner, at the time of the Hotel Drouot auction.

In recent years most nations have recognised that they have a responsibility to guarantee that every effort is made to effect the return of property confiscated from its rightful owners during World War II. It is estimated that over 600,000 works of art were looted from families all over occupied Europe, particularly in Russia, Germany, France, Belgium and Poland from 1939-1944. Jewish families, Freemasons, and political opponents of the Third Reich were favourite targets of such activity.

The Mondex Corporation claim to have been locating unclaimed spoils of war and proving ownership. This comes at an unspecified price, which we suspect ranges from 30%-40% of the price of the painting. They state on their website, "If you or any members of your family are seeking to recover works of art that were either looted or purchased in forced sales by Nazi officers or their art dealers, we encourage you to contact us". In the case of Modigliani's 'Man with a Cane' Mondex are going to need to produce a strong case or the painting will remain the property of the powerful Nahmad family.

This article has been edited at the suggestion of lawyers to Mondex and approved by our London legal team.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024