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Panama Papers: The Art of Secrecy

Modigliani

Amedeo Modigliani’s “Seated Man with a Cane”

By Jake Bernstein

Locked in the files of a Panama law firm are the answers to mysteries involving Van Goghs, Picassos, Rembrandts and other masterworks

In this story

  • Panama Papers provides unprecedented look at connection between international art trade and offshore secrecy
  • Billionaire art dealers use offshore company to shield painting allegedly looted by Nazis
  • Identity revealed of the man secretly behind the 20th century’s most important modern art auction

After a chance discovery, the grandson of a Jewish art dealer learned that a valuable painting he believed the Nazis had looted from his grandfather might now be in the hands of one of the art world’s most influential families. Proving it has been another matter.

The work, by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, is known as “Seated Man with a Cane.” Modigliani, a young, impoverished alcoholic, died of tuberculosis almost a century ago; his paintings today sell for as much as $170 million. The portrait of a dapper man with a mustache perched on a chair, hands resting upon his walking stick, may be worth $25 million.

Investigators traced the painting to a clan of billionaires that bought the work at auction in 1996. Lawyers working for the grandson sent a letter to the Nahmad Gallery in New York, stating that the painting belonged to the grandson, who was entitled to its return. They requested a meeting to discuss the matter. The gallery failed to respond, according to court documents. The grandson sued. Four years later, the two sides’ lawyers are still fighting it out.

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