U.S. places sanctions on art collector said to finance Hezbollah

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U.S. places sanctions on art collector said to finance Hezbollah
U.S. officials described the diamond dealer, Nazem Said Ahmad, as one of the “top donors” to Hezbollah.

by Elizabeth A. Harris

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- The Treasury Department announced sanctions Friday against a diamond dealer who the government said has used an art gallery in Beirut and an extensive personal art collection, sprinkled with names like Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, to shelter and launder money.

U.S. officials described the diamond dealer, Nazem Said Ahmad, who lives in Beirut, as one of the “top donors” to Hezbollah, a political movement based in Lebanon that is considered a terrorist group by the United States. The Trump administration said that Ahmad was involved in “blood diamond” smuggling.

Ahmad, one of three people on whom Treasury officials imposed sanctions, is perhaps better known for what he collects than what he sells.

A spread in Architectural Digest Middle East last year showed the walls of his Beirut penthouse lined with vivid paintings and bright sculptures. The article said his collection included works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ai Weiwei, Thomas Heatherwick and Marc Quinn. He is known in Beirut for collecting international art, primarily American.

The Treasury Department, in a statement, said Ahmad used his art as a place to shelter money “in a pre-emptive attempt to mitigate the effects of U.S. sanctions.” It said he also set up a gallery in Beirut, the Artual Gallery, as a front to launder money.

There has long been a debate in the art world about how susceptible the trade is to money laundering. It has obvious vulnerabilities: Transactions are largely unregulated, and the identities of buyers and sellers are typically not publicly disclosed. But many in the art world have strongly denied that illicit deals take place.

The two other men who were placed on sanction because of what the government described as their support for Hezbollah were a businessman based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a Lebanon-based accountant who works for one of the businessman’s companies. Those men and Ahmad are now essentially blacklisted from the U.S. financial system, and those who do business with them could find themselves facing sanctions as well.

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