NEW YORK—The Art Loss Register (ALR), London, an organization that attempts to halt the trade of stolen artwork, has helped a Massachusetts collector solve a decades-old mystery involving seven artworks stolen from his home more than 25 years ago. Now the organization, which maintains a database of stolen artworks, is seeking to ensure that all the works are returned to their rightful owner.
The paintings—a still life, Bouteille et fruits, by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), two portraits by Chaïm Soutine (1894-1943), one painting each by Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) and Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), and two more works by the Turkish-born Parisian artist Jean Jansem (1920-90)—were stolen from Stockbridge, Mass., collector Michael Bakwin back in 1978.
Truth Comes Out in Court
Subsequent investigations—both federal and private—yielded little information about the whereabouts of the works. But when the holder of the paintings—whose identity had long been concealed by a shell company named Erie International Trading Co.—attempted to auction the paintings in Switzerland last year, the ALR maneuvered the disputed ownership issue into a British court, where the truth about the stolen pieces and their longtime possessor was finally revealed.
Retired attorney Robert M. Mardirosian, of Falmouth, Mass., has been in possession of the paintings for much of the time since the theft in 1978. In an interview with The Boston Globe, Mardirosian, a defense lawyer turned artist, said the works had been stolen by a now-deceased former client, David Colvin, whom he had represented on a separate criminal charge. Mardirosian claims that unbeknownst to him, Colvin, who was murdered in 1979, had left the works in his attic.
Mardirosian further claims he did not discover the paintings until about a year after the theft. (ARTnewsletter was unable to reach Mardirosian for comment on the matter.)
Mardirosian told the Globe he had considered seeking a finder’s fee for returning the paintings to their rightful owner. He eventually set up the shell corporation Erie International Trading Co., with a Panamanian address, and moved the artworks to Switzerland for storage with the intent of selling them eventually. He first tried to sell them in 1999 at a Sotheby’s auction in Switzerland.
Because the paintings were all on the database of the ALR, that organization attempted to stop the sale and seize the works. However, ALR chairman Julian Radcliffe notes, ALR was able to negotiate the return of the Cézanne picture only. It was done in exchange for a document, signed by collector Bakwin, which turned over legal possession for the six other works to Erie International. Mardirosian’s identity remained hidden, and ALR made its deal with a Swiss lawyer acting on behalf of the Erie Corporation.
This deal, Radcliffe told ARTnewsletter, was part of a long-term strategy on ALR’s part for the eventual recovery of all the paintings. “We refuse to pay ransom for art,” he said. “We may pay an informer money for information . . . but ransom, no. We made this deal because we knew Erie International could never sell these works.” (The Cézanne was returned to Bakwin, who eventually sold it at a Sotheby’s London auction in 1999 for $30 million.)
In 2005, after a five-year waiting period, four of the six remaining paintings—the Soutines, the de Vlaminck and the Utrillo—were once again brought to Sotheby’s in Switzerland for auction.
“Sotheby’s did the right thing and checked with us,” Radcliffe told ARTnewsletter. ALR again took action to stop the sale, filing a legal action to declare the 1999 agreement null and void, Radcliffe said.
Company Owner Revealed
Last November, ALR won the right to try its case in London, where the High Court of Justice voided the 1999 agreement and, in a second hearing last month, unsealed Mardirosian’s identity as sole owner of Erie International.
Radcliffe said ALR “will take civil action” against Mardirosian for its costs in negotiating the 1999 agreement (£2.5 million, or $4.4 million) and in for the most recent legal proceedings (£300,000, or $523,000) in a London court.
“The judgment is enforceable in the U.S.,” says Radcliffe, who adds that he is also referring information on the case to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for a potentially criminal proceeding against Mardirosian.
Additionally, ALR is planning to petition the London court—first, to order Sotheby’s to return the four paintings in its possession to Bakwin; and, second, to require Erie International to return the Jansem paintings to Bakwin.