Monday, April 22nd, 2013

The Art of the Gamble: Feds Bust Helly Nahmad

The Helly Nahmad Gallery, long-time resident of the august Upper East Side, and tenant on the ground floor of the Carlyle Hotel, is the latest gallery caught up in a rippling scandal that has effectively closed its operations. The New York Times reported last Tuesday that the FBI conducted an early morning raid on the gallery, arresting owner Hillel (“Helly”) Nahmad (son of David Nahmad) on the charge of collaborating with a host of unsavory characters in money-laundering to support a clandestine gambling operation for high-rolling Russian oligarchs, Hollywood celebrities and sport stars. In a bizarre turn of events it is alleged that Helly wired $1.35 million of his family money towards the illegal gambling dens which were in turn overseen by the 64-year-old Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov (alias “Taiwanchik”), an at-large fugitive who was indicted by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan for rigging the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Amadeo Modigliani, Seated Man in a Chair, 1918.
Amadeo Modigliani, Seated Man in a Chair, 1918.

The Nahmad family, a fixture at auction houses and New York society gatherings, are estimated by Forbes to have a total net worth of more than $3 billion. The quietly elegant exhibitions that the gallery mounted, most recently Soutine/Bacon, and Alexander Calder: the Painter, evoke tasteful privilege and old-world money, but nevertheless also communicate an underlying fixation on the art object as supreme luxury investment. The current crisis is not their first brush with the law. Earlier this year it was reported that the family was being sued for the return of a Modigliani painting, Seated Man on a Chair (1918) that had been reportedly stolen by the Nazis from its original owner. The Nahmads’ found a legal loophole to keep possession of the painting by claiming that the work was in fact owned by the International Art Center—a company that the painting’s original owners claim is an off-shore holding site for the Nahmads’ vast collection.

Reached in London, David Nahmad expressed surprise and disbelief over the current claims leveled against his son’s gallery, calling the FBI’s allegation of a close-knit relationship between his family business and the Russian mob “totally stupid.” The federal investigation of the Nahmad Gallery is ongoing, and is an important link in a sweeping, $100+ million money-laundering case against gambling dens. Other arrests include a cadre of colorfully named characters: Molly (“Poker Princess”) Bloom; Joseph (“Joe the Hammer”) Mancuso; Stan (“Slava”) Greenberg; and Noah (“The Oracle”) Siegel. On Friday, April 19 thirty-odd individuals, including Helly Nahmad, were arraigned in a Manhattan court. All suspects took the same plea: “not guilty.”

Gisele Bundchen and her art dealer friend Helly Nahmad. Photo: Pacific Coast News
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