Geneva prosecutors opened a criminal probe into the ownership of an Amedeo Modigliani painting believed to have been taken by the Nazis in World War II as part of a New York legal dispute over the $20 million art work.
As part of the case, investigators on Friday searched facilities at the Geneva Free Ports, and confiscated the painting, “Seated Man with a Cane,” the Geneva Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement Monday. Aaron Golub, a lawyer for David Nahmad and International Art Center, said the painting was still at the site in Geneva.
Current ownership of the Modigliani canvas was disclosed as part of the millions of pages of documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, the Tribune de Geneve reported last week. The documents, known as the Panama Papers, have led to widespread revelations about offshore accounts owned by the rich and powerful. They have already forced the prime minister of Iceland to resign, put U.K. premier David Cameron on the defensive about his family’s finances, and last week prompted Geneva Chief Prosecutor Olivier Jornot to open a probe into local institutions implicated in the documents.
The Modigliani painting, worth as much as $25 million, was taken by the Nazis from its original owner, Parisian art dealer Oscar Stettiner, who died before he could recover the piece after the war. Stettiner’s grandson hired Mondex Corp., a Toronto-based art recovery firm acting for the original owner, to track the canvas down.
“This is a major victory for our client in his year’s long struggle to recover a valuable work of art he rightfully owns,” Mondex founder James Palmer said in the statement. The current ownership of the painting is “illegal” and “we look forward to working with Swiss authorities to recover a “Seated Man with Cane” and returning it to its owner,” he said.
The current owner of painting is the International Art Center, an investment firm owned by collector David Nahmad, the Tribune de Geneve reported, citing Mossack Fonseca. That backs up a lawsuit filed last year in New York court by Stettiner, claiming IAC was an off-shore entity used by the Nahmad family to hold their artworks, most of which are stored in the Geneva facility.
The Geneva Prosecutor’s office said it won’t comment further now that the case is underway. Golub, the International Art Center’s attorney, said Friday in a phone interview that the location of the painting, “Seated Man with a Cane,” already had been known to the court.
IAC acquired the work at a 1996 auction at Christie’s in London for $3.2 million. It was exhibited at the Helly Nahmad Gallery in 2005 and offered at auction at Sotheby’s in 2008, according to court filings. The painting, which was valued at $18 million to $25 million by the auction house, failed to sell.
The painting is worth about $20 million, according to the heir’s complaint, while Tribune de Geneve cites estimates of $25 million.
Golub confirmed in a telephone interview that the IAC owns the painting.
“The fact that the painting is owned by a corporation is irrelevant,” he said in a statement. “What is pertinent is can the claimant prove that the painting belonged to his family. The answer we believe is absolutely not.”
Christie’s researched the previous ownership of the work and published it before the 1996 auction, Golub said.
“There was then not a shred of evidence in any registry or any database that referred to this painting as being a Nazi looted painting,” he said.
According to the lawsuit by Stettiner’s grandson Philippe Maestracci, Stettiner left the painting behind when he fled Paris in November 1939. His gallery closed the following year and the Germans auctioned it off in 1944. He filed a claim in 1946 but couldn’t find the artwork, his grandson said in the lawsuit. It reappeared at Christie’s in London and was sold with an inaccurate provenance, he alleged.
The New York case is Maestracci v. Helly Nahmad Gallery Inc., 650646/2014, New York State Supreme Court (Manhattan)