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Brush With the Law

By Amanda Lehmert, Staff Writer
Published: Cape Cod Times, February 14, 2007

A part-time Falmouth resident was arrested yesterday afternoon in connection with a 29-year-old art heist considered the largest burglary of a private home in state history, a U.S. attorney's office spokeswoman said.

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Robert Mardirosian, a defense lawyer-turned-artist with a home in Ballymeade estates, was arrested at Logan Airport in Boston on charges of possession, concealment, storage and attempted sale of goods that crossed a U.S. boundary for allegedly keeping seven paintings stolen from a Stockbridge home in 1978.

The paintings include a Paul Cezanne worth $29.3 million.

Mardirosian was released on $500,000 unsecured bond and is under house arrest at a family member's Belmont home until he is fitted with an electronic tracking bracelet tomorrow. Attempts to reach Mardirosian by telephone last night were not successful.

Yesterday the owner of the paintings, Michael Bakwin of Virginia, filed a $3.5 million civil lawsuit against Mardirosian and his wife in Barnstable Superior Court, according to Bakwin's attorney, Michael Collora. Bakwin is seeking compensation for the millions in legal fees and other expenses incurred in recovering the paintings.

Mardirosian voluntarily returned to the United States yesterday from his other home in a southern France artists colony, just days after FBI agents and Falmouth police raided his Ballymeade house searching for documents.

The police uncovered a stash of marijuana in the search that they believe belongs to Mardirosian's son, Marc. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but he remains at large.

"He's always played up his artist credentials," Julian Radcliffe, of the London-based Art Loss Register, said of Mardirosian. ''I'm not sure what the French will think about having an art thief amongst their artist community.''

The seven paintings were allegedly stolen from the home of Bakwin's parents in 1978 by David Colvin, whom Mardirosian represented on another criminal matter, according to federal investigators.

Colvin, who was killed the following year in a dispute over a gambling debt, allegedly stole the paintings and stashed them at Mardirosian's home, according to investigators.

Mardirosian told a Boston Globe reporter last year that he kept the paintings all these years in hopes of getting a finder's fee for turning them over.

Mardirosian eventually moved the paintings overseas and worked through lawyers in London, Monaco and Switzerland and a Panamanian shell company he founded, investigators said.

In 1999, he attempted to sell them through the shell company, but the Art Loss Register intervened. Radcliffe said he negotiated a deal to relinquish Bakwin's ownership claims on the six less valuable paintings in exchange for the Cezanne, but Mardirosian's identity was never revealed during the transaction.

The valuable painting, "Pitcher and Fruits," was recovered and later auctioned for $29.3 million.

In 2005, when Mardirosian attempted to sell the other four paintings, the Art Loss Register intervened again. This time a London court unveiled the document that revealed Mardirosian was in possession of the paintings.

"It is unconscionable to think that an attorney, knowingly in possession of stolen property, would negotiate the return of the paintings for a finder's fee instead of returning them to the rightful owner," said FBI Special Agent in Charge Warren Bamford.

Since then, Bakwin and the Art Loss Register have been pursuing Mardirosian's assets worldwide, and federal investigators have been pursuing Mardirosian for possible criminal charges.

"We will not only go after the recovery of the art, but every penny they have made for trafficking art," said Radcliffe, interviewed from London via telephone yesterday.

Bakwin, who was out of the country on safari and could not be reached for comment yesterday, is still attempting to get four paintings back from London and two more from a man in Switzerland.

Bakwin sued Mardirosian and his wife for fraud and fraudulent transfer for his out-of-pocket costs of getting the paintings back.

"It is technically a way of getting assets back from people who don't deserve to have them," Bakwin's attorney Collora said. The suit alleges Mardirosian transferred ownership of his Ballymeade home to his wife in 2006, at a time that he was being pursued by creditors, Collora said.

Amanda Lehmert can be reached at alehmert@capecodonline.com