U.S. lawyer charged in case of stolen art, including Cezanne

A retired lawyer who federal authorities say negotiated to sell paintings allegedly stolen by a former client, including a US$30 million (EUR23 million) Cezanne still life, was arrested at Boston's international airport after arriving from France.

Robert R. Mardirosian of both Falmouth, Massachusetts, and St. Paule de Vence, France was charged in U.S. District Court with possessing, concealing, storing and attempting to sell stolen goods, U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said.

"People seem to get away with all kinds of stuff when it comes to art robbery," said Michael Bakwin, the paintings' owner and a former inn keeper in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, now living in Suffolk, Virginia. "I don't know if there is any closure, but it's nice to see that people who break the law don't get away with it."

In 1978, Bakwin returned to his home in the Berkshire mountains to find seven paintings missing from the dining room walls. "Pitcher and Fruits," a painting by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, was among them.

Nearly 30 years later, authorities allege in a complaint unsealed Tuesday in federal court that Mardirosian, 72, hauled the paintings on a bizarre circuit from his Watertown, Massachusetts, law office to Swiss banks and London auction houses, all under the cover of a Panamanian shell company he created to sell the works.

"It is extremely disheartening that an attorney charged with upholding the law, as the defendant was in this case, would disregard that duty and for decades conceal the whereabouts of priceless works of art for no other reason than greed," Sullivan said in a written statement.

Last year, Mardirosian told The Boston Globe newspaper that the paintings' alleged thief, David Colvin, left the pieces at his law office in Watertown. He told the newspaper he represented Colvin in an unrelated case.

"He was going to bring them to Florida to fence them, but I told him that if he ever got caught with them with the other case hanging over his head, he'd be in real trouble," he told The Globe.

In 1979, a year after the artwork went missing, Colvin was killed in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, over a gambling debt.

In 1988, Mardirosian moved the paintings to Monaco, thinking he might have a legal claim to ownership or a 10 percent "finder's fee," according to a May 2006 affidavit from FBI Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly, also unsealed Tuesday.

Lloyd's of London was contacted in 1999 by an unknown person about insuring the paintings before sale, the affidavit says, and discovered they were listed with the database Art Loss Register as having been stolen. It says Julian Radcliffe, chairman of Art Loss Register, determined that the paintings were being sold by a Panamanian corporation called Erie International Trading Company, later found to be registered to Mardirosian.

Radcliffe contacted Bakwin and brokered a deal with unnamed agents of Erie, who agreed to return the Cezanne in exchange for the other six paintings. Two months after retrieving the Cezanne, Bakwin auctioned it through Sotheby's in London for US$29.3 million (EUR22.5 million).

As part of the contract, the owner of Erie agreed to disclose his identity in a sealed envelope. A British judge later ruled the contract void because Bakwin "signed it under duress." He ordered the envelope unsealed, revealing Erie's owner as Robert Mardirosian, and ordered the lawyer to pay Bakwin US$3 million (EUR2.3 million).

Bakwin said four paintings, which authorities say Mardirosian tried to sell through Sotheby's in 2004, will be returned to him in Virginia. He said he did not plan to auction them, reports AP.

"I have a fairly large home, so I'll display them where they fit," he said.

Investigators believe the two remaining paintings, both Jansen works, are being held by a Swiss friend of Mardirosian.

Three lawyers for Mardirosian did not return calls or e-mails from The Associated Press.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office did not return an after-hours call. The Cape Cod Times reported on its Web site that, after his arrest on Tuesday, Mardirosian was released on US$500,000 (EUR384,000) bail and ordered to stay at his son's home in Belmont.

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