It’s been the possession of a French baron and graced the walls of museums in South Africa and The Hague. It was among the precious artworks stolen from a Stockbridge home over Memorial Day weekend in 1978 — disappearing for two decades, including a stretch when it was stashed in a plastic bag in the attic of a lawyer’s Watertown home.
Now, the wandering still life by Paul Cézanne titled “Bouilloire et Fruits” is on the auction block and expected by Christie’s to fetch $40 million as some of the late media mogul S.I. Newhouse’s collection is put up for sale.
Cézanne, one of France’s famed Impressionists, painted the image of a kettle next to a clutch of fruit between 1888 and 1890. Christie’s calls the painting a “still-life of consummate formal inventiveness.”
It also has an incredible backstory that Watertown attorney Robert M. Mardirosian revealed to the Globe’s Stephen Kurkjian in 2006.
One of the two men who stole a total of seven artworks from Michael Bakwin of Stockbridge was a 31-year-old Pittsfield gambler named David Colvin. Mardirosian was his lawyer.
Colvin showed up one day with the paintings in a bag.
‘’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,” Mardirosian told the Globe in 2006. ‘’So he left them upstairs in my attic in a big plastic bag.”
Colvin never returned. He was shot to death in 1979 over a gambling debt, the Globe has reported.
Mardirosian eventually concluded he had a legitimate claim to ownership. In 1988, he shipped the paintings to Switzerland, where they were stashed in a vault, according to federal court records.
It wasn’t until 1999 that Mardirosian, without revealing his identity, traded the Cézanne back to Bakwin in return for the title to six of the other stolen paintings.
The First US Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld Mardirosian’s conviction of possessing stolen paintings and described how the Cézanne was returned to Bakwin with the help of the Art Loss Registry, which tracks stolen art internationally.
A representative of Bakwin met in Geneva with a Swiss lawyer named Bernard Vischer, who was working for Mardirosian.
“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,” the court wrote. “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.”
Experts were handed the trash bag, and they “carefully opened it to reveal the stolen Cézanne,’’ the court wrote.
Bakwin, who had spent millions of dollars over two decades searching for his stolen art and who only reluctantly agreed to hand over the title to the six other paintings in return, sold the painting at auction in December 1999.
The winning bid was $29.3 million. It was placed by Newhouse, who held onto it until his death. He died in 2017, and now his estate is putting it up for sale.
“There was no one like S.I. Newhouse and in his art collection are reflected the extraordinary style, refinement and vision that have had such profound effects on modern culture,’’ wrote Max Carter, an Impressionist expert for Christie’s.
Mardirosian was released from federal prison in 2014.
John R. Ellement
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