Monet's Water Lilies: 1MDB Loot, or Maybe Not?

Monet, 1MDB, Jho Low, David Nahmad

«Water Lilies with Reflections of Tall Grass», Claude Monet

A $57 million Monet seized as 1MDB loot may not belong to the disgraced Malaysian state fund after all. A prominent art dealer plans to intervene in court. At the center of the affair: a Swiss bank.

«Water Lilies with Reflections of Tall Grass» is one of the most famous – and valuable – works from Monet’s time in Giverny in France’s Normandy region, where he painted hundreds of pictures of water lilies.

The impressionist piece was one of several seized more than four months ago as U.S. officials grabbed $1 billion in real estate, art, a jet and other assets as part of an investigation into 1MDB’s ill-gotten gains. 

Accused 1MDB linchpin Jho Low has until now been believed to be the owner of the painting. 

Art Dealer's Claim

U.S. officials have documented how Low transferred millions from an account at BSI Bank in Singapore to prominent art dealer David Nahmad for it and several other artworks.

Now, Monte Carlo-based Nahmad is claiming the painting is actually his, according to «The Wall Street Journal», and wants to reverse the painting’s seizure through U.S. authorities.

«My painting has been solely owned and possessed by me since its purchase up to the present time,» Nahmad said in an affidavit in a California court.

The Monet, estimated to be worth $57 million, is part of the loot from what U.S. officials say is $4 billion pilfered from 1MDB. 

Paid through BSI 

U.S. officials had pegged Low as the Monet’s owner, showing correspondence between the two men over a planned million-dollar wire transfer through Banca della Svizzera Italiana, or BSI. The bank was the first of two to be shut down in Singapore as a result of the scandal; the remainder of BSI's operations are being sold to EFG International. 

Nahmad, who claims he bought the Monet for $13.6 million at auction nearly four years ago, appears to argue that the deal with Low was never consummated.

«I wish to confirm that instructions for wire of USD2.5m x 2 will originate from BSI Bank to your goodself for the Monets, with more payments following suit,» Low wrote to Nahmad in April of 2014. Nahmad received $2.25 million from Low several days later, according to U.S. officials.

Art Spending Spree

The dispute won't be simple to settle, as the financial paper trail fizzles following Low's down payment. The ownership is further complicated by the fact that art dealers often purchase artworks at the request of clients, typically because the buyer wishes to remain anonymous.

This brush with controversy isn’t the Nahmad family's first. The so-called Panama Papers revealed the Nahmads as the owner of a Modigliani, allegedly looted from a Jewish art dealer by the Nazis, hidden in a Geneva freeport.

Nahmad has since denied the allegations, and said he will return the painting if it is proven to be Nazi loot. 

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