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Two Paintings Stolen in 1978 to be Returned

April 15, 2010

BOSTON, Mass. - Late yesterday, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the conviction and prison sentence of a one time Massachusetts state prosecutor. The case arose from the 1978 theft of seven paintings from Stockbridge, Mass. – the largest burglary from a private residence in Massachusetts history and one of the largest art thefts in the U.S.

United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz and Warren T. Bamford, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Field Division, announced that the Court of Appeals affirmed in all respects, the conviction and seven year prison sentence of ROBERT M. MARDIROSIAN, 74, of Falmouth, Mass. on charges that he possessed stolen property that had crossed a U.S. boundary knowing it to be stolen.

The case began on Memorial Day weekend in 1978 with the burglary of seven pieces of valuable artwork from a Stockbridge home, including the Cezanne painting, Bouilloire et Fruits. The alleged thief, David Colvin, left them with MARDIROSIAN, a Massachusetts defense attorney and former assistant district attorney in Middlesex County. MARDIROSIAN had represented Colvin in another case in federal court in Boston. Four months later, Colvin was murdered.

MARDIROSIAN stored the paintings in Watertown, Mass. until 1988, when he moved them out of the country, ultimately placing them in the vault of a Swiss bank. In 1999, he attempted to sell the paintings through an intermediary in London, inadvertently alerting the London-based Art Loss Register (ALR), an organization that assists in the recovery of stolen art and antiquities. On behalf of the original owner, the ALR reached out to the intermediary in an effort to recover the paintings. In response, the intermediary, on MARDIROSIAN’s behalf, demanded a $15 million ransom for their return.

After months of negotiations, in October 1999, the ALR brokered an “agreement” between the owner and a Panamanian corporation that MARDIROSIAN had set up as a front to conceal his identity, whereby the corporation was to hand over the most valuable painting, the Cezanne, in exchange for the owner’s relinquishing all claims to the remaining six paintings. At the time, the paintings were valued at approximately $1 million. The agreement was signed in Geneva, Switzerland, where the Cezanne was delivered by an unidentified driver who pulled up in a car where MARDIROSIAN’s lawyer was standing, handed him a wrapped package containing the Cezanne, and promptly sped off. Two months later, the owner auctioned the Cezanne through Sotheby’s in London for $29.3 million.

MARDIROSIAN held onto the remaining paintings until 2003, when he tried to sell them through other intermediaries. MARDIROSIAN arranged to have the paintings brought to a Swiss bank for valuation and authentication by Sotheby’s. In 2005, MARDIROSIAN arranged for four of the six paintings to be sent to Sotheby’s for transport from Geneva to Sotheby’s in London - after which the owner filed a lawsuit seeking to void the 1999 “agreement” with the Panamanian Corporation.

The four paintings, Portrait d’une Jeune Fille and Portrait d’un Jeune Homme by Chaim Soutine, Maison Rouge by Maurice Utrillo, and Flowers by Maurice de Vlaminck were eventually returned to the rightful owner. The remaining two stolen paintings, Woman Seated and Boy by Jean Jansen were recovered by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. With the completion of the appeal, the Government will return the last two paintings to the owner – some 32 years after they were stolen.

On appeal, the Court rejected MARDIROSIAN’s argument that the 1999 Geneva agreement transferred valid title to the six remaining paintings to MARDIROSIAN. The Court held that the contract was void because its purpose was illegal; it required the owner to pay what in effect was a ransom for the return of his own property.

The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with assistance from the Art Loss Registry and its President, Julian Radcliffe. It was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jonathan F. Mitchell and Ryan M. DiSantis of Ortiz’s Economic Crimes Unit, with the assistance of Trial Attorney Collette Ford of the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs.


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