Lost in Translation
In the Nahmad art dealer dynasty, Hillel "Helly" Nahmad is accused of money laundering, and the billionaire patriarch goes missing
I’ll make this clear from the get-go: I like Helly Nahmad. I like his dad, David, very much. I’ve stood with Nahmad Senior in front of so many Picassos over the years as he told me whether they were very good (usually, if he owned them) or very bad (if he did not). We go way back.
I’ll make another thing clear from the get-go: The art world is a scam where a lot of bad money disappears. Not primarily, by any means—it has, and achieves, a higher purpose than that—but with some regularity.
It is where these two “clear from the get-go’s” meet that is unfortunate.
This is the U.S. Open without a Williams sister: Something has gone awry.
The Nahmads, a Monaco-based art-dealing dynasty, have been tabloid stars in recent days, mentioned in a context one would dearly not wish to be mentioned on the front page of the New York Times. Helly has been named in an indictment related, if you read the 84-page document carefully, to involvement in “an international bookmaking operation that catered primarily to oligarchs located in the former Soviet Union.” (This was all allegedly cooked up over a regular Trump Tower poker game, so I’m told, where one night a dealer was tipped $14,000 for a well-dealt hand.) When his son’s alleged involvement was first reported, David, who is not charged, was reached by one publication for a quote. “It is totally stupid,” he said.
Since then, David’s been missing. Gone from the auction rooms, where he has all but owned the first few rows (alongside Valentino and jeweler Laurence Graff), ubiquitous as a chandelier, for decades, gone from the aisles of art fairs, where he smilingly has offered his wares, gone from Madison Avenue, where his gallery resides. This is the U.S. Open without a Williams sister: Something has gone awry.
Left and right, there is amazement and tut-tutting. “This gives people who believe all rich people are bad a rallying cry,” said Todd Levin, a prominent curator and art consultant. “From people who stand outside the art world looking in, there’s a lot of noise and grumbling.” One well-known lawyer expressed amazement, not at the alleged crimes, but that “anyone would do that who already had that much money.” Forbes magazine has estimated the Nahmads to be the richest family in Monaco, which is very different indeed from topping the income rolls in Teaneck.
The family is a colorful lot. There’s an old story, all the more delightful if it’s apocryphal: About a dozen years ago, Christie’s and Sotheby’s executives were charged by the Justice Department with colluding to fix the prices they charged collectors (see, I told you all sorts of fiscal legerdemain is going on). The rumor at the time was that the matter started with a meeting over monies owed to them both by the legendarily slow-paying David. (It’s legal for business competitors to discuss mutual debtors.) There’s another, probably more believable rumor, that the family is the single biggest owner of Monets in the world.
One thing is true: when David walks into Cipriani on Fifth, the staff practically genuflects and the corner table is cleared. It’s said the family deal for the Sultan of Brunei. They're cousins of the banking dynasty the Safras, who have achieved the only kind of fame in New York that really matters—they were the subjects of a thinly disguised ripped-from-the-headlines Law & Order episode.
Here was a kid with enough money to choose to be a druggie, a failure or a screw-up instead of going into the family business.
Over the years, as I’ve written on art, David’s returned my calls from his cell, beachside in Monaco, or playing backgammon for obscene sums of money. (He was the 1996 Backgammon World Champion.) Over espresso in Basel we’ve talked the ridiculous escalation of Peter Doig prices – “more than Dubuffet,” David has sputtered; at Sant Ambroeus, he’s ordered cake, discussed the divination of buy-in rates and who’s behind what. If I’d written something unflattering, as I often did, since the Nahmads routinely managed to get first-tier prices for second-tier art at auction, David would suddenly speak at length about how good another journalist was. Nearly two decades ago, I had dinner at a private London gaming club with him and brother Joe. “What one artist would you bet on?” Joe asked, when I was a little pipsqueak of girl in love with art. “Warhol” I said and he smiled, since, I found out later, they were just then weighing a decision to pour tens of millions into the Warhol market.
The fact that Helly has been indicted was not welcome news in the art world. Here was a kid with enough money to choose to be a druggie, a failure or a screw-up instead of going into the family business. Seemingly, and for so long, he was none of those things. In a field where too few go into the family art business, he had sat in the front row, learning from Dad. Decades ago, he bought Damien Hirst, buying low and selling very high. He appeared a smart young man. Perhaps not. Now, he has more lawyers than friends. And David is mentioned, obliquely but unmistakably, in the indictment also. Prosecutors are also going after SAC Advisors, helmed by Steve Cohen, one of the world’s major art collectors, and there are other art-world prosecutions, too. For some—who knows who? —the jig may be up.
The last time I spoke to David Nahmad, a few months ago, he asked me for a favor. His other son, Joe, had an art show running downtown, just about to close. He wanted me to go see it, perhaps write it up. The request was uncharacteristically urgent. He was proud of him, he said. “Promise me you’ll go.” I did, but, leaving for a trip a few days later, I never got there. I’m sorry for that, because things will never quite be the same.
Pictured above: Helly Nahmad in 2012 with Sir Phillip Green at the "Delirium Tremens" opening at Joseph Nahmad Contemporary in New York. Image courtesy of Billy Farrell Agency.