The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) recently issued an “amber alert” to the art storage industry about the risk of its facilities being used for money laundering, tax evasion, and terrorist financing through its “long-term storage and concealment of high value assets by sanctioned persons.”

The first case study in the agency’s January 2024, 15-page alert highlighted “an investigation into a sanctioned Hezbollah financier identified approximately a million pounds sterling in fine artwork belonging to this individual in art storage facilities in the UK.”

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While the financier is unnamed, an investigative report earlier this month from The Nationalidentified the person as Nazem Said Ahmad, a Beirut-based art collector who has been indicted in the US and the UK.

The National also reported that police in the UK recently seized works belonging to Ahmad from an art storage warehouse near Heathrow Airport and the Phillips London auction house. UK police seized a total of nine works from Phillips and 23 from the Williams & Hill art storage warehouse.

The estimated total value of the seized works was approximately $1.26 million (£995,764). According to The National, the works included Picasso’s 1962 linocut Nature morte a la pasteque (Still Life with a Watermelon) and three works by Andy Warhol, including Details of Renaissance Paintings (Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation, 1472), 1984.

The most valuable works seized by UK police from a warehouse location of art storage company Williams & Hill were a Stanley Whitney painting, Sing All Day, with an estimated worth of £225,000 ($315,000), and Divine Wind, a painting by Iranian artist Ali Banisadr valued at £175,000 ($222,000). The latter sold at a Christie’s auction in 2012 for $92,500.

Last March, Ahmad was charged in the US with violating and evading US sanctions on $440 million worth of imports and exports in art and diamonds. He was also sanctioned in the UK this past April under the government’s counterterrorism regulations. The press release noted Ahmad’s “extensive art collection in the UK” and that he had conducted business with multiple UK-based artists, art galleries, and auction houses.

Ahmad has also been sanctioned by the US government since 2019 for his alleged role as a major financial donor to Hezbollah. Despite these sanctions, Architectural Digest Middle East featured Ahmad’s penthouse in Beirut in 2022, with a focus on his paintings and sculptures (the article has been since removed from the magazine’s website). According to the article, Ahmad’s art collection also includes works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ai Weiwei, Thomas Heatherwick, and Marc Quinn. 

Phillips’s statement to The National said the auction house was fully cooperating with authorities in the US and the UK, including having provided the US Department of Justice in February 2020 with a full list of properties it held that belonged to Ahmad. “On becoming aware of the allegations and the action taken by the US authorities, Phillips immediately ensured that Mr Ahmad was banned from transacting with us and froze all artworks belonging to Mr Ahmad in our possession globally at that time.”

The auction house did not respond to a request for comment from ARTnews.

The NCA alert on the risks of sanctions evasion and money laundering is intended for a wide range of art industry businesses and service providers, including purpose-built warehouses, auction houses, art dealerships, galleries, museums, freeports, shipping and transport companies, insurance companies as well as agents, brokers, lawyers, accountants, and banking providers.