Federal Art Theft Charges


Stephen Kurkjian and Shelley Murphy have an article in yesterday’s Boston Globe about the arrest of Robert Mardirosian, an attorney charged with attempting to possess, conceal, store, and sell stolen art. The Boston Herald has a story as well.

The 72 year-old Madirosian had been entrusted with the paintings by his client the thief nearly 30 years ago. This work, Paul Cezanne’s Pitcher and Fruits was stolen from Michael Bakwin, back in 1978. He recovered the work a few years ago, and it was sold by Sotheby’s for close to $30 million.

In a strange series of events, the paintings were hauled all over the world in an attempt to sell them, from Massachusetts to Switzerland, London and Monaco. As the Boston Herald’s AP article details:

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 $29.3 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 $3 million.

It’s fascinating stuff, and reveals a number of things about the current state of the market. First, the shroud of secrecy surrounding transactions is not productive. Second, import controls are not working. It is just not possible to adequately inspect most of what gets shipped around the world. Finally, how does an attorney expect to get away with this kind of thing? It seems the final straw was the fact that Madirosian’s colleague, Paul Palandjian, got tired of having the stolen works in his own attic and went to the police.

This prosecution is sure to generate a great deal of attention. These works high value continues to fuel illegal activity. The only sure way to prevent it is to erect safeguards in the market place. On one level, its very easy to criticize Mardirosian’s behavior. However, how many of us would think twice about turning over a $30 million work to the police, no questions asked? I would like to think most of us would, but that kind of money must be extremely tempting.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Church Thefts

In today’s New York Times, this piece details the theft of colonial art from Mexico’s rural churches. Apparently, theft from churches in Mexico’s colonial heartland near Mexico City has become widespread. According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, 1,000 colonial pieces have been stolen since 1999. In response, the Mexican government is attempting to register the nation’s sacred art. According to the Times piece, 600,000 items have been inventoried so far. The institute is also preparing its own Web site of stolen art, so dealers and collectors can no longer claim that there is no record of the theft.

Such a database is both a welcome change, and worrying at the same time. In theory, a database should put dealers of Mexican colonial art on notice that a certain set of objects may be tainted. However, there are a number of such websites now available. See the Art Loss Register for example. The more of these databases there are, the harder it will be for the law to realistically impose an obligation on buyers and sellers of art and antiquities. If each segment of the cultural property market has its own database, this would almost certainly lead to confusion and overlap. One unified website would be a much better system. A buyer or seller could easily check a single website t insure their piece is not stolen.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com