A retired Watertown lawyer was sentenced to seven years in federal prison yesterday for possessing six Impressionist paintings that he knew were stolen in 1978 from a house in the Berkshires in what is believed to be the largest private art theft in Massachusetts history.
US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf acknowledged that Robert M. Mardirosian, a 74-year-old former criminal defense lawyer, has been diagnosed as suffering from early-stage dementia and said prison will be hard on him. But Wolf said it was crucial to send a message to other lawyers to resist the temptations of crime.
"The only reason I'm sentencing a 74-year-old man in the early stages of dementia is because you were calculating enough to get away with this for 30 years," he said in a firm voice, facing the silver-haired, mustachioed defendant.
"You started as a lawyer," Wolf said. "As far I'm concerned, you became a glorified fence."
The judge did, however, reserve judgment on whether he will release Mardirosian from the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Rhode Island pending an appeal his lawyer plans to file. Wolf said he will rule on that shortly.
The sentence was less than the 10 years in prison recommended by Assistant US Attorney Jonathan F. Mitchell, but much harsher than the recommendation of Mardirosian's lawyer, Jeanne M. Kempthorne, of Salem. She asked Wolf to sentence Mardirosian to two years in home confinement, saying her client would probably not survive a long prison term.
A federal jury convicted Mardirosian on Aug. 18 of taking six Impressionist paintings that had allegedly been stolen by one of his clients from the Stockbridge house of Michael Bakwin and storing them in Europe. Mardirosian's client, David Colvin, of Pittsfield, also stole a seventh painting, a Cezanne piece called "Bouilloire et Fruits," that Mardirosian kept for two decades before it was returned in 1999 to Bakwin, who auctioned it off at Sotheby's for $29.3 million.
Colvin was shot to death in 1979. Mardirosian told the Globe in 2006 that he stumbled upon the paintings in 1980 in his office loft, where Colvin had once spent a night when he visited the lawyer to discuss another case.
Rather than return the paintings, authorities said, Mardirosian stored them in Switzerland. In 1999, using a shell company and lawyers, Mardirosian returned the Cezanne to Bakwin in exchange for title to the six other paintings, which were far less valuable. Bakwin testified at Mardirosian's trial that he considered the agreement extortion, but that he wanted the Cezanne back.
In 2005, Mardirosian, through an intermediary, had four of the other six stolen paintings transferred from Geneva to Sotheby's London auction house in preparation for a sale, authorities said. The estimated market value of the paintings ranged from $70,000 to $500,000 each, according to the indictment.
But in May 2005, Bakwin, with the help of the Art Loss Register, sued Sotheby's in a London court to halt the sale. The suit and the public disclosure of Mardirosian's name in connection with the paintings prompted the federal investigation that culminated with his surrender last year.
Bakwin recovered the four paintings that were scheduled to be auctioned in London. Wolf ordered yesterday that the two paintings that had remained in Switzerland and have been in the hands of US authorities be returned to Bakwin, pending the outcome of Mardirosian's appeal.