Busted Billionaire's Son Asks to Teach Art to Homeless in Lieu of Jail
MIDTOWN — Helly Nahmad says that as a little boy his billionaire dad instilled him with two great loves — gambling and art.
The insatiable appetite Nahmad developed for gambling, he says, led to his running an illegal sports betting ring with alleged ties to the Russian mob. Federal investigators busted the ring last year, and in November Nahmad, 35, pleaded guilty to one count of operating an illegal gambling business.
The gallery-owning, model-chasing playboy now hopes the other passion he picked up from his pop can be his penance.
In a pre-sentencing memo submitted by his lawyers last week, Nahmad begged a Manhattan Federal Court judge to give him community service in lieu of prison. He even suggested an appropriate type of service — teaching homeless kids about modern art by chaperoning their visits to museums and taking them to his own gallery in the Carlyle Hotel.
“I think I can do much good work if permitted to perform community service, especially if it involves teaching young people about art and art history,” Nahmad wrote in a letter as a supplement to the memo.
“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 art-dealing scion who lives in a $21.7 million Trump Tower apartment in Midtown said that as an alternative to prison he would be willing to pay $100,000 a year to help fund a program run by art historian and educator Natasha Schlesinger, which takes Bronx kids on tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other cultural hubs.
Nahmad also said he would help teach the children about modern art and hopes to expand the program into a nonprofit called ArtWorks.
The plea for leniency — accompanied by scores of letters from art world bigwigs, celebrity friends and family members attesting to his character — describes how, after his April 2013 arrest, Nahmad was a blubbery mess who collapsed into his sister’s arms.
“Since I was young, gambling was part of my family’s recreational life. It was acceptable in the culture I was raised in,” he wrote. “I never thought that gambling would lead me to a possible prison sentence and create a permanent black mark on my family’s name.”
Nahmad got a taste for fine art at a young age, shadowing his father, renowned art dealer David Nahmad, at galleries, museums and auctions.
At 5, Helly was scoping out antiques at Sotheby’s auctions, according to a letter his dad wrote to the judge on his behalf. At 12, Helly stared in awe at an exhibit coordinated by his dad of 11 paintings of the Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet, according to the memo.
After high school, Helly joined the family business, and at 21, he managed a small family gallery, becoming a power player in the art world over the past 15 years.
David Nahmad said in his letter that he also exposed his son at an early age to playing poker, gin and backgammon, noting that gambling is a part of his Lebanese culture.
“Helly watched me gamble, sometimes for high stakes, and it became part of his life too,” David recalled. “When he lost, he sometimes turned to me to pay his debts, and I did.”
At 14, Helly was betting on Knicks games through a bookie and even lost in a ping-pong match a watch he received as a Bar Mitzvah gift, according to the memo. A year later, he was thrown out of a Monaco casino while playing its slot machines.
“He bet on everything from who could throw a baseball further to whether a friend could score a basket on an NBA player,” the memo says.
The path into the illegal betting operation began in Helly’s 20s, when he was losing heavily at poker and sports bets, the memo says. It was then, in 2006, that he met Noah Siegel, a chess-playing Connecticut College dropout who developed a computer algorithm that found weaknesses in a bookie’s odds-making, according to the memo.
Helly supplied the cash, while Siegel provided the mathematical wizardry. Bets of $100,000 were the norm.
“Soon, Helly joined up with Noah and went from being a loser to a winner overnight,” the memo says.
The duo got so good that gambling websites began blacklisting them, forcing them to locate new websites that would accept their bets.
Helly’s pal, professional poker player Illya Trincher, helped them find new sites, the memo says.
The three crossed over from placing bets to illegally taking them in 2012, according to the memo. Clients included celebrities and wealthy friends, Manhattan federal prosecutors say.
Helly claims he didn’t get into the operation for money, since he was working six days a week at his gallery, which pulled in $70 million in sales last year, according to the memo.
“Although Helly complained when those with whom the group crossed did not pay up, it was not about the money,” the memo says. “Noah’s betting gave Helly teams to root for. It made the Super Bowl more exciting and March Madness more intense.”
On April 16, 2013, federal prosecutors charged Helly, Trincher, Siegel and 31 others with various counts for their alleged roles in the $100 million illegal gambling ring.
Trincher has since pleaded guilty to operating an illegal gambling business. Siegel pleaded guilty to the transmission of wagering information between states.
Under his plea, Helly, whose family’s art collection is reportedly worth $3 billion, has agreed to give up $6.4 million to the feds and "Carnaval à Nice, 1937," a painting by Raoul Dufy that’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He is scheduled to be sentenced on April 30.
His lawyers, Benjamin Brafman and Paul Shechtman, declined to comment for this story.
Among those who wrote character letters for Helly were the president of Pace Gallery, executives at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and the former deputy chair of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“My Name Is Earl” star Ethan Suplee and magician David Blaine’s fiancée, model Alizee Guinochet, also went to bat for him with letters.
“The arrest and indictment … were a look at what living through a chapter in a Kafka novel would be like,” wrote Suplee, who at the time of Nahmad’s arrest was staying in his pad while he filmed a flick with James Franco and Jonah Hill.
“Finally when the dust had settled, Helly had to really face what responsibility he held in this situation,” Suplee added. “I can, with a firsthand account, guarantee you that he did.”