Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Stolen Art Watch, Gardner Art Heist 24 Years & Counting !!

On Remand: Stolen Art Disappears Into The Starry Night And A Lawyer Goes To Prison

At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day festivities wound down in Boston, two men dressed as police officers rang the buzzer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. Eighty-one minutes later, they vanished, taking eleven paintings and two artifacts with them. None of the stolen works — worth at least $500 million today — has ever been recovered. This week, On Remand looks back at the Gardner heist and another set of stolen paintings that found their way back the rightful owner — landing an attorney in prison in the process….

The Gardner heist began when two men claiming to be police officers investigating a disturbance in the courtyard were admitted to the museum without question by the on-duty security guard. The imposter policemen then tricked the guard into stepping away from his alarm button and summoning the other on-duty guard. After taping the guards’ hands, feet, and heads (leaving holes to breathe), the burglars handcuffed the guards to pipes in the museum’s basement. With the guards disabled, the burglars disconnected the museum’s video cameras. No one would discover what happened next until 8 a.m., when the morning shift of employees arrived.
That morning, Gardner staff and police discovered what remains the largest property crime in U.S. history. In the Dutch room, a Rembrandt self-portrait, which the thieves had unsuccessfully tried to pry from its frame, laid discarded on the floor. Two frames — the former homes of Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black — hung haphazardly without their contents, which had been cut out. A Vermeer and a Govart Flinck painting were missing. Elsewhere in the museum, five Degas drawings, a Manet, a bronze eagle from the top of a Napoleonic flag, and a Chinese vase were also gone.
The burglary was beyond perplexing. The thieves operated with a strange mix of professionalism and amateurism. Their method of entry, treatment of the guards, and disabling of the museum’s security cameras suggested they were professionals. Yet, only amateurs would risk spending nearly an hour and a half in the museum (and, according to motion trackers still active throughout the burglary, spend only half that time stealing art). The thieves’ eclectic mix of stolen artwork — Dutch, Asian, and Napoleonic — appeared to have no connection, and they vastly devalued the two Rembrandts by cutting them out of the frames. The thieves also left the museum’s most valuable painting, Titian’s Europa, hanging on the wall.
The crime remains unsolved, the theories as perplexing as the heist itself. Those theories include the involvement of the Irish Republican Army or possibly Whitey Bulger, the Boston mob boss and FBI informant. Another theory posits that New England art thief, Myles Connor, asked an associate to make the steal.
Contrary to the Gardner heist, and Hollywood’s treatment of other art heists, most stolen art is taken without drama: museum employees simply walk off with artwork in storage or opportunists snag small pieces from the homes of collectors. Art thieves typically are not sophisticated criminals in bowler hats. Such was the case with a 1978 break-in in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. After Michael Bakwin left town for the Memorial Day weekend in 1978, his house was broken into and seven paintings were stolen, including a valuable Cézanne. The investigation quickly focused on David Colvin, a small-time career criminal who was already in trouble with the law on an unrelated firearms charge.
The day before his hearing in the firearms case, Colvin arrived at his lawyer’s office with a bag containing the paintings stolen from the Bakwin home. According to his attorney, Robert M. Mardirosian:
He was going to bring them to Florida to fence them, but I told him that if he ever got caught with them with the other case hanging over his head, he’d be in real trouble…. So he left them upstairs in my attic in a big plastic bag.
In February 1979, Colvin was shot and killed over a $1,500 poker debt, stalling the investigation into Bakwin’s stolen paintings. A few months later, though, while cleaning the attic, Mardirosian rediscovered the paintings. He didn’t contact the authorities. He didn’t call Bakwin. Instead, he researched the best way to make a profit….

As Mardirosian quickly discovered, profiting from stolen art is not easy. Instead of selling it, thieves (or their bosses) often use valuable pieces as collateral in drug deals or hold the art in hopes of creating leverage if (or more likely, when) they are charged with other crimes. Mardirosian, who was experienced in criminal defense but not criminal fencing, sat on the paintings for twenty years.
Finally, in 1999, Mardirosian, perhaps bored with his still life, tried selling the Cézanne. To remain anonymous, he set up a shell corporation and hired an intermediary in London. But when the intermediary sought insurance to ship the painting, the insurer contacted the Art Loss Register, a private organization that maintains a database of stolen paintings. The ALR effortlessly identified the art as the Cézanne stolen from the Bakwin home and notified British and American authorities. Seeing an opportunity for itself as well, the ALR reached an agreement with Bakwin to recover the seven stolen paintings for a commission. The investigation, which had virtually stopped at Colvin’s death, was back on.
Meanwhile, Mardirosian blundered on, demanding $15 million from Bakwin for the return of the art. Bakwin initially refused, but then had a change of heart. To save the Cézanne, he sacrificed the other six paintings (together worth about $1 million), agreeing to convey those to the still-anonymous Mardirosian. Mardirosian, now represented by a new intermediary who was (of course) also a lawyer, agreed. Mardirosian’s attorney Bernard Vischer met with Julian Radcliffe, the founder and chairman of the Art Loss Register, in Geneva to execute the agreement. They were accompanied by experts from Sotheby’s to verify the painting’s authenticity.
As recounted in the First Circuit’s later opinion:
Vischer spoke with someone on his cell phone, and then announced that he would retrieve the Cézanne and bring it to the boardroom. He left the room and headed to the front of the building, with Radcliffe and others in tow. Once outside, Vischer walked to a nearby corner. A white car pulled up beside him, and the back passenger window lowered. A passenger in the backseat, his face shrouded from view, handed Vischer a black trash bag. The car sped away. Vischer returned to the boardroom and handed the trash bag to the experts from Sotheby’s, who carefully opened it to reveal the stolen Cézanne.
With his part of the 1999 Agreement satisfied, Mardirosian received a bill of sale purportedly transferring title in the other six paintings. He also agreed to sign an affidavit — using his real name — swearing that he was not involved in the original theft. The affidavit was sealed and sent to the London-based law firm Herbert Smith for safekeeping.
Mardirosian continued to work on selling the remaining six paintings. After Bakwin refused to pay $1 million for them, in 2005, working through a new intermediary (a real estate developer this time), Mardirosian offered the pieces to Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s, predictably, called the Art Loss Register to check the arts’ provenance. The ALR identified the paintings as those stolen from Bakwin, but seeing an opportunity to collect on its commission, the ALR instead told Sotheby’s that title was clear. When the paintings arrived in London, Bakwin sued to stop the sale. In the course of the case, the affidavit was unsealed, revealing Mardirosian as the seller.
Soon after, Mardirosian was indicted in the U.S. under §2315 of the National Stolen Property Act, which makes it a crime to receive or possess stolen goods worth $5,000 or more that have crossed a U.S. boundary. In his defense, Mardirosian argued that the 1999 Agreement (which allegedly gave Mardirosian title to the six paintings in exchange for the Cézanne) terminated his illegal possession, and in the intervening eight years, the statute of limitations had run. In affirming his conviction, the First Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the argument — contracts for illegal purposes are never valid:
The 1999 Agreement was illegal in that Mardirosian conditioned the return of the stolen Cézanne on Bakwin’s relinquishment of title to the six paintings. We tread no new ground in declaring that the act of demanding a fee for the return of stolen property is unlawful.
Mardirosian was sentenced to seven years, assessed a $100,000 fine, and disbarred. In a later civil case, Bakwin and the ALR won $3 million in damages from Mardirosian for all their trouble. Perhaps being both disbarred and behind bars has changed his tune, but before his 2007 criminal trial, Mardirosian had this to say for himself:
I know some things don’t look good here, but I believe I have a legitimate case to make…. I could have sold these a dozen times, but never did. My whole intent was to find a way to get them back to the owner in return for a 10 percent commission.
To be sure, some things don’t look good here for Mardirosian. But they are looking up for Bakwin, who sold his Cézanne for $29 million shortly after reacquiring it in 1999. Meanwhile, because Mrs. Gardner’s will requires the Gardner to remain exactly as it was the day she handed it over, empty frames and blank spots greet the museum’s guests where the Rembrandts and the other stolen works used to hang. Last year, on the heist’s anniversary, the FBI issued a press release announcing that it knew the identities of the thieves, as well as the arts’ location in the years immediately after the theft. The arts’ current location remains unknown, however, and the Gardner’s $5 million reward for information leading to the return of its stolen works is unclaimed. The field is crowded, so bring your “A” game and join the professional art investigators, petty criminals, psychics, and the rest of the motley crew hoping to capitalize on the Gardner’s misfortune.
Inside The Gardner Case [ARTnews]
Ripped From the Walls (And The Headlines) [Smithsonian]

Samantha Beckett (not her real name) is an attorney with more than ten years of experience working in Biglaw. When not traveling back in time, she is most likely billing it. Her writing has been featured in state and federal courts across the nation and in the inboxes of countless clients, colleagues, and NSA analysts. She can be reached at


Anonymous said...

Do you think there is any truth to the rumor that the art from the Gardner heist has been stored improperly and is now ruined? One art expert who has supposedly seen one of the paintings likened the paint surface to 'cornflakes'.

Anonymous said...

And which art expert would that be?