Art Crime Pays: Trump Pardons Helly Nahmad, the Art World’s Cartoon Villain

The pardons favored Trump cronies, allies, and business associates — in the manner of a bouncer fingering VIPs from behind a tatty velvet rope at Le Baron during Art Basel Miami Beach


It was April 30, 2014, and Hillel “Helly” Nahmad was doing his best courtroom grovel.

“Your honor, I am ashamed,” the then 35-year-old art dealer told U.S. District Court Judge Jesse M. Furman inside Manhattan’s Thurgood Marshall Courthouse. “My family is a private family and I have brought dishonor to it . . . No matter what your sentence today, I will never forgive myself. Others who love me may forgive, but I will not.”

The scion of the famously secretive Nahmad clan — a three-billion-dollar art-dealing empire heavily leveraged with Picassos and Renoirs and with economic interests across the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East — Nahmad was being tried as part of a wide-ranging, 34-defendant racketeering and money-laundering investigation. The case was brought by the Violent and Organized Crime Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, led at the time by Preet Bharara, who was fired by President Donald Trump early in 2017.

The charges against Nahmad — who runs a glitzy secondary-market gallery located on the first floor of the Carlyle Hotel — were weighty enough to galvanize the Feds and sufficiently boldface to inspire an Aaron Sorkin film, the Jessica Chastain vehicle Molly’s Game. According to The New York Times, Nahmad was charged with captaining a $100 million gambling ring that included professional athletes, actors Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio, and several organized crime figures, among them Russian oligarch and Trump acquaintance Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov (the Uzbek gangster is still at large in the vast criminal underworld that is the Russian Federation). Additionally, Nahmad was accused of bilking an unnamed female client described as being in “dire financial circumstances” out of more than $100,000 in an otherwise “routine” art sale.

Facing as many as 100 years in prison, Nahmad was found guilty and sentenced, incredibly, to just a year and a day (he effectively dodged racketeering, money laundering, and conspiracy charges, and was indicted on a single gambling count). He was also ordered to pay a $30,000 fine, plus forfeit $6.4 million and his interest in Raoul Dufy’s 1937 painting Carnaval à Nice, which was employed in yet another allegedly fraudulent transaction.

Before the trial ended, Nahmad delivered himself of a remarkable allocution. Unlike the statement defendants regularly convey to judges to accept responsibility, humanize themselves, and mitigate sentences, Nahmad’s expression of remorse instead mimicked comic-strip beggary: his plea for leniency described how, after his April 2013 arrest, “Nahmad was a blubbery mess who collapsed into his sister’s arms.” Writing for the now defunct publication DNA Info, reporter James Fanelli also reported on Nahmad’s offer to chaperone underprivileged youth on visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in lieu of prison time: “I do not have a great education in other subjects, but I really do know a lot about art and I think I could really reach young people in a good way and hopefully introduce them to a world they might not otherwise visit.”

The court summarily dismissed such expressions of contrition as insincere. According to Judge Furman: “Mr. Nahmad’s view of the world, at least when he thinks that no one is watching . . . [is] that he can take advantage of the situation. To allow him to use his family’s money to buy his way out of this would sow contempt for the law.”

Fast forward to January 20, 2021. As part of his final febrile hours inside the White House, Donald Trump — the Biff Tannen of rich boy privilege — issued pardons to 73 convicts, including Nahmad, the Snidley Whiplash of the art world. An official White House communication described the 41-year-old art perp as having led “an exemplary life” since his conviction. (Requests for comment on the pardon sent to Nahmad’s gallery went unanswered.)

According to Kenneth P. Vogel of The New York Times, only 25 of Donald Trump’s almost 240 pardons and commutations came through the process the Justice Department normally uses to identify and vet worthy petitions of clemency. The rest favored an ad hoc process that privileged Trump cronies, allies, and business associates — in the manner of a bouncer fingering VIPs from behind a tatty velvet rope at Le Baron during Art Basel Miami Beach.

At first, second, and third glance, the Nahmad pardon suggests a tangle of plutocratic quids, pros, and quos. Nahmad owns the entire 51st floor of Manhattan’s Trump Tower, for which he paid $21 million, in 2016. His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman — who previously defended Harvey Weinstein and Martin Shkreli — also helped obtain pardons for two more noteworthy clients: conspiracy theorist and campaign-finance fraudster Dinesh D’Souza and disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Another longtime Brafman client who was recently pardoned: witness-tamperer and tax cheat Charles Kushner, father of Donald Trump’s ex–senior adviser and son-in-law. The relationship patterns are as ugly as a MAGA Christmas sweater. (If other presidents, such as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, issued controversial pardons — the former pardoned fugitive banker Mark Rich, the latter Yankees owner George Steinbrenner — Trump’s forgiveness stands out for the close proximity of folks he has let off the hook, including former campaign advisers, staffers, and in-laws.)

In a Trump-free universe, pardons and commutations are overseen by federal prosecutors and the U.S. Attorney General.  Typically, they are also reviewed by the judges involved in the original sentencing. Applicants are evaluated on their post-conviction conduct, the seriousness of their crimes, whether they are remorseful, and, ultimately, personal recommendations. Though no recommendations for Nahmad’s pardon are yet forthcoming, Judge Furman characterized his 2014 letters of support as coming from art-market folks who “had some reason to curry favor” with the Nahmads. One letter came from Pace Gallery honcho Marc Glimcher. He told the court that Nahmad “is very simply the most honest and trustworthy person we have the privilege to work with.”

“Gambling has always been a part of my life,” Nahmad told Judge Furman before being convicted, “I watched my father and his friends play games . . . for high stakes. It was a part of his life the way the art business was. It was almost an addiction. It crossed the line into my being part of illegal gambling. I knew we were no longer just betting and I should have stopped. I didn’t and I have only myself to blame.”

Besides throwing his own father under the bus as, ahem, ethically challenged — in 2016 the Panama Papers connected David Nahmad to ownership of a Nazi-looted painting, Amedeo Modigliani’s Seated Man With a Cane (1918) — Nahmad fils conveniently left out his own larcenous worldview. In 2014, a wiretapped phone conversation recorded Helly as saying that wealth can be created by those who “circumvent the system” and “cheat and lie.” Here’s a modest proposal for those sick of having the art trade routinely compared to the shadowy worlds of drug cartels and gun trafficking. Remember Nahmad’s words and who uttered them, reject business as usual, and trash the idea that art crime pays. ❖

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