Art owner wins $3m civil award in theft case

Judge grants recovery costs

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / August 24, 2011

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Michael Bakwin, who was the victim of the largest residential theft in Massachusetts history when art was stolen from his house in the Berkshires in 1978, won a $3 million civil judgment yesterday against the man who possessed the artwork for more than two decades and tried to sell it, Bakwin’s lawyer said.

The case spanned four decades and two continents and involved a British stolen art expert, an illegal gun dealer in Pittsfield with a gambling problem, and a defense lawyer-turned artist with a penchant for stolen paintings.

Bakwin and his wife left their Stockbridge house on Memorial Day weekend in 1978 for a short trip. When they returned, they discovered that someone had broken in and stolen seven paintings together worth millions, including a major still life by Cezanne that would later fetch $29.3 million at auction.

Robert M. Mardirosian, a retired criminal defense lawyer, was convicted in federal court in Boston in August 2008 of possessing six of the stolen paintings and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Yesterday, a Barnstable Superior Court jury awarded Bakwin about $3 million from Mardirosian, who is still in prison, and his family, to reimburse Bakwin for the costs he incurred in locating the stolen artwork over the years.

“I think the civil jury here has sent a strong message to those dealing in stolen art that there will be a price to pay for that activity,’’ said Michael Collora, the Boston lawyer representing Bakwin.

Mardirosian’s attorney did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

Mardirosian is believed to have obtained the paintings from one of his law clients, David T. Colvin, a career criminal who often incurred gambling debts. But before the investigation could be completed, Colvin was shot to death in 1979 over a $1,500 poker debt he owed.

Collora said Mardirosian had the paintings for more than 20 years. He kept the artwork in Massachusetts until 1988, when he moved it out of the country and eventually to a Swiss bank, according to court records. He later tried to move the paintings to London for sale, but an investigation by the London-based Art Loss Register determined that the artwork was stolen.

Bakwin was able to reacquire five of the paintings, but it was not until last year, once Mardirosian’s appeals were exhausted, that the final two were returned.

The paintings included a Cezanne titled “Bouilloire et Fruits’’ and two Jean Jansem pieces, “Woman Seated’’ and “Boy.’’

Bakwin sold the Cezanne for $29.3 million at Sotheby’s in 1999.

Bakwin’s lawsuit asserted that Mardirosian was responsible for the costs that Bakwin incurred finding the art, and he added Mardirosian’s family to the suit, arguing that Mardirosian had transferred assets to relatives in an attempt to preserve them against legal judgment.

Collora said Bakwin, who is now in his late 70s, finally feels that the story has concluded.

“He feels vindicated,’’ Collora said. “Robert Mardirosian had his paintings in his possession for over 25 years. With the criminal cases resolved and civil cases resolved, that is it.’’

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at