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Amedeo Modigliani, Seated Man (Leaning on a Cane), 1918
Amedeo Modigliani, Seated Man (Leaning on a Cane), 1918


Nov. 1, 2011

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Frenchman Philippe Maestracci filed a lawsuit against New York’s Helly Nahmad Gallery on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, for the return of a pricy Amedeo Modigliani painting, Seated Man (Leaning on a Cane) (1918), that he says Nazis looted from his grandfather, a Jewish art dealer. According to the complaint, Maestracci first spotted the missing work in a 2008 Sotheby’s catalogue, where it was on consignment by the Nahmad family for an estimated $18 million-$25 million (it failed to find a buyer, or even a bid, at that November’s sale). Maestracci said he then wrote to the gallery twice this year demanding restitution but has received no response.

Maestracci’s grandfather, Oscar Stettiner, loaned the painting to the 1930 Venice Biennale, where it was listed as number 35 in the catalogue, according to court papers. In 1939, Stettiner fled Paris and his gallery was taken over by Nazi-appointed administrator Marcel Philippon, who held four auctions of Stettiner’s inventory, and sold the Modigliani in 1944. Stettiner attempted to retrieve the work in 1946, but died two years later without success. Maestracci is his sole heir.

The Nahmad family purchased the work at Christie’s London in 1996 for $3.2 million. Its provenance was attributed then to well-known Parisian collector Roger Dutilleul, and cited as number 16 from the Venice Biennale, not number 35. This is what Maestracci says made it impossible for him to locate the picture until 2008, when Sotheby’s relisted the work as number 35 and attributed the provenance “possibly” to Dutilleul and “possibly” to Stettiner. 

“If you want to distract from the Stettiner provenance you float an alternative theory,” said Maestracci’s attorney, Raymond Dowd of Dunnington, Bartholow and Miller LLP, who said he plans to call key witnesses from the auction houses to testify on the catalogue discrepancies. “Obviously the story changed from what Christie’s published to what Sotheby’s published. It’s clear that Sotheby’s catalogue tells a different story.” The witnesses, Dowd says, will address why the original mistake was made at Christie’s and why Sotheby’s went ahead with the sale anyway.

Maestracci is asking Nahmad to deliver the painting or pay him “fair market value.” Nahmad did not respond to a request for comment.

“There are people who are willing to do the right thing,” Dowd said, “and it’s too early for me to judge how this is going to shake out.”

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