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Court ruling returns masterpieces

07 February 2006Written by ATG Reporter

THE Art Loss Register has announced the recovery of four valuable paintings stolen 27 years ago in a £30m theft.

The pictures, two portraits by Chaim Soutine and two others by Maurice de Vlaminck and Maurice Utrillo, were taken along with a Cézanne and two other paintings from art collector Michael Bakwin’s Massachusetts home in 1978.

But just over a year ago the four pictures emerged when they were consigned to Sotheby’s by a Panama-based firm called Erie International Trading Company. Following the legal action that ensued, the Art Loss Register announced that last week’s High Court ruling meant that the pictures will now be returned to Mr Bakwin.

Solicitor for the Art Loss Register Anna O’Connell told ATG that the pictures are currently being held at Sotheby’s in London and that an application has been made for a court order to release them. Although no decision has yet been taken, the pictures could again appear on the legitimate market should the Bakwins decide to sell them.

Events leading to the recovery began in 1999 when a first attempt to sell all seven stolen paintings in London was referred to the ALR.

There followed delicate negotiations which the chairman of the ALR Julian Radcliffe conducted on the basis of not paying a cash ransom. However, an agreement was reached that the most valuable work should be surrendered in return for relinquishing title to the six other stolen paintings.

The Cezanne, Pommes et Serviette, was relinquished by Erie International and subsequently sold at Sotheby’s in London for £18m in December 1999. But Radcliffe imposed a condition that Erie make a written declaration that the company had no involvment in the original theft.

But when the four pictures were consigned for sale in early 2005, the ALR argued successfully in court that the original agreement was void because “it had been entered into under duress and was against public policy”.

Erie appealed and argued that the dispute should be referred to a private arbitration in Switzerland. This was dismissed last week by the High Court judge after it emerged that the lawyer, Robert Mardirosian, who originally represented one of the suspected thieves, was also the signatory of the declaration made as part of the Cézanne surrender. This declaration was opened in court – it was kept under nine levels of envelopes and packaging – revealing Mardirosian’s signature. This acted as evidence connecting Erie to the original theft.

As well as the return of the four paintings, it is also likely that substantial costs will be awarded against Erie and Mardirosian.
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ATG Reporter

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