Collector Nazem Said Ahmad has been charged for violating and evading US sanctions through $440 million worth of imports and exports in art and diamonds, according to federal prosecutors. Eight others, including several of his family members, were also charged.
The nine-count indictment unsealed this week in United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York also includes allegations of conspiring to defraud the United States and other governments, evading customs laws, and money laundering for the benefit of Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah.
Ahmad has been sanctioned by the US government since 2019 for his role as a major financial donor to Hezbollah through money laundering activities, as well as for personally providing funds to the organization’s secretary-general. He was barred from conducting business, like collecting and selling “high-value art,” real estate, and diamonds, with US entities and persons.
But these sanctions did not stop Ahmad and his partners from using “a complex web of business entities” to procure valuable artwork from American artists and art galleries, as well as secure U.S.-based diamond-grading services, while hiding the art collector’s involvement in and benefit from these transactions, according to a press release from the Justice Department.
“Luxury good market participants should be attentive to these potential tactics and schemes, which allow terrorist financiers, money launderers, and sanctions evaders to launder illicit proceeds through the purchase and consignment of luxury goods,” Brian E. Nelson, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
The Treasury Department said it identified 52 individuals and entities in an international network across nine countries that Ahmad used to facilitate “the payment, shipment, and delivery of cash, diamonds, precious gems, art, and luxury goods” for his alleged money laundering and sanctions evasion.
The other individuals charged for helping Ahmad include his son Firas Michael Ahmad, his daughter Hind Nazem Ahmad, his brother-in-law Rami Yaacoub Baker, as well as associates Mohamad Hijazi, Mohamad Hassan Ismail, Sarya Nemat Martin, and Ali Said Mossalem Sundar Nagarajan.
Hind Nazem Ahmad is also the owner operator of the Dida Gallery in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and Artual Gallery in Beirut, Lebanon. She disputed the allegations, saying she was unaware of the case in federal court; she called the notion of her father being a financier for Hezbollah “absurd.”
“I would have never imagined this would ever be possible,” she told the New York Times.
While one of the defendants was arrested this week in the United Kingdom, the Justice Department said the eight others, including Ahmad, “are believed to reside outside the United States and remain at large.” The American government has also obtained seizure warrants for millions in assets in artwork, cash, and a diamond ring.
Last year, Ahmad’s penthouse in Beirut was featured in Architectural Digest Middle East (since removed from the magazine’s website) for its wide array of paintings and bright sculptures. According to the article, Ahmad’s art collection also includes works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ai Weiwei, Thomas Heatherwick, and Marc Quinn.
The indictment further alleges that Ahmad and his associates obtained artwork worth more than $1.2 million from the US after he was sanctioned in 2019, but notes that amount does not account for the tax evasion from foreign governments. By comparison, the indictment said the total weight and value of the diamonds, which had allegedly passed through Ahmad’s businesses after the sanctions had been imposed, were graded at approximately 1,546 carats, worth more than $91 million.
While the indictment included the prices of the art works based on export records and sales invoices, it did not identify the names of artists and galleries involved, only referring to them by location, such as “Chicago Art Gallery-1.”
Using Google reverse image search on artworks attached to the indictment, several of the works appear to be artists David Salle, Terron Cooper Sorrells, Stickmonger, and UFO907; per the indictment, these pieces were paid for or acquired through other names, entities, or partial payments to obscure they were connected to Ahmad.
Three of the works in the indictment had also been posted to Ahmad’s Instagram account, where he frequently posts images of artists, galleries, and exhibitions to his 172,000 followers. Ahmad identified those paintings as ones by Nicasio Fernandez and Luke Agada.
ARTnews has reached out to each of these artists and Ahmad for comment.
The indictment said the painting by Agada was paid for by wire transfer through an American financial institution based in New York. It shows a woman wearing a black blazer, a white dress with black polka-dots, white gloves, with an antique telephone box instead of a head. The woman holds a cardboard box with a label marked “EVIDENCE.”