Published: August 26, 2008
Robert M. Mardirosian, 74, a retired lawyer charged in 2007 by federal authorities of possessing, transporting and attempting to sell paintings allegedly stolen by a former client, now deceased, was found guilty by a jury in US District Court here on August 18. Among the works Mardirosian stood accused of using to negotiate a “finder’s fee” were paintings by Chaim Soutine, Maurice Utrillo, Maurice de Vlaminck and Jean Jansem.
A still life by Paul Cezanne, “Bouilloire et Fruits,” valued at nearly $30 million and one of seven paintings originally stolen in 1978, was returned to its owner after a complicated series of negotiations in 1999.
The indictment filed in the case spells out a chain of events that reads like a pulp novel †with a story line involving theft, murder, international financial intrigue, an internationally known auction house and a London-based firm that maintains a database of information about stolen works of art, the Art Loss Register (ALR).
In July 1978, the court document states, David Colvin, the lawyer’s client, came into Mardirosian’s office carrying a plastic bag that contained seven highly valuable Impressionist paintings by Cezanne, Chaim Soutine, Maurice Utrillo, Maurice de Vlaminck and Jean Jansem. The paintings had been stolen from the home of Michael Bakwin, a Stockbridge, Mass., collector, while he and his family were away on a Memorial Day weekend outing.
Court documents also relate that Colvin showed the stolen paintings to Mardirosian and admitted to stealing them. Advising his client not to attempt to sell the paintings, Mardirosian allowed Colvin to sleep in a storage space in a nearby building that he owned. About seven months later, the lawyer learned that Colvin had been murdered over a gambling debt, and about a year after that Mardirosian discovered the bag containing the paintings in the storage area.
The US government contends that for the next 30 years, Mardirosian attempted to profit from the stolen paintings. First, he sought a reward or “finder’s fee” for returning the stolen paintings, and when he learned that none was being offered, he then shipped the paintings to Europe for storage in Geneva, Switzerland. In the meantime, Bakwin had registered his stolen paintings with the ALR.
Forming a Panama-based company, Erie International, Mardirosian took a new tack †he began negotiating with the ALR through a Swiss attorney for the return of the paintings to Bakwin.
As a result of those negotiations, in the fall of 1999, Erie International successfully entered into an agreement with Bakwin to turn over the Cezanne in exchange for title to the other six paintings, and ALR, representing Bakwin, took possession of the Cezanne. Two months later, Bakwin sold it at auction through Sotheby’s of London for $29.3 million. The painting, dating to 1888‹0, was executed at the peak of Cezanne’s career. It shows an arrangement of brilliantly colored apples and oranges placed next to a pewter pitcher and nestling in the luminous folds of a tablecloth.
Mardirosian next turned to Boston real estate developer and family friend Paul Palandjian in December 2003, asking him to help sell the six remaining stolen paintings. He told his friend that although the paintings had been stolen, they now had clear title, and Palandjian in 2005 traveled to Geneva and took delivery of the paintings.
In Geneva, Palandjian had a Sotheby’s representative come in and inspect them. Although the auction house was willing to sell four of the six paintings, it said it was not willing to fund their outright purchase from Mardirosian. Mardirosian then authorized Palandjian to act as his agent, promising him a commission on the sale of the four paintings selected for auction by Sotheby’s.
When the paintings were shipped to London in April 2005, the estimated value placed on each of the works ranged from $70,000 to $500,000, and they were prepared and cataloged for a June sale.
A truism in the art theft world, however, is that title is never clear on a stolen artwork. ALR stepped in, and with its assistance Bakwin sued Sotheby’s to halt the sale. Bakwin was able to recover the four paintings, and the other two paintings are currently being held by US officials in Boston.
Julian Radcliffe, ALR’s chairman, said of last week’s trial, “This case proves the importance of the Art Loss Register’s stolen art registration service, the searching service we provide for the art trade and the determination and patience required for investigations and recovery.”
Mardirosian was arrested in February 2007 as he stepped off a plane from France at Logan Airport. He could receive up to ten years in federal prison when he is sentenced on November 18. Until that time, he is being detained, according to the attorney general’s office.
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