After $59M sale, 'Bouilloire et Fruits' painting's price tag, beauty matched only by its journey
The tangled saga of "Bouilloire et Fruits," the storied painting by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, boggles the mind.
The masterpiece, which was sold at auction for $59 million this week, has gone through at least nine owners since it was painted in Aix-en-Provence from 1888 to 1890.
But its connection to the Berkshires, where it was was stolen from a Stockbridge home in 1978 by a Pittsfield gun dealer and gambler, was most startling.
The masterpiece, freely translated as "Kettle and Fruits," was first acquired by Baron Denys Chochin in Paris shortly after it was completed. By the turn of the 20th century, it had made its way to museums and collectors in Paris, Berlin, Johannesburg, South Africa and The Hague in the Netherlands.
By May 1978, the painting had landed in the attic of part-time Stockbridge resident Michael Bakwin, who had inherited it from his parents. There it languished until it was stolen, along with six other paintings.
The theft from the Hawthorne Road home was at the time deemed the largest residential larceny in state history.
After the Memorial Day theft, Stockbridge Police valued the Cezanne at $600,000, according to Eagle archives. The remaining six paintings were valued at about $150,000.
The thief, David Colvin, 31, was murdered a year later by two Boston men seeking to collect a $1,500 poker debt.
But before Colvin died, according to published reports and information on the Christie's auction house website, he "donated" the Cezanne painting and the six others to his criminal defense attorney, Robert M. Mardirosian.
For 20 years, Mardirosian stashed the paintings in Monaco, then in a Swiss vault, and finally in a plastic bag in the attic of his Watertown house before selling the Cezanne back to Bakwin in 1999.
Later that year, Bakwin auctioned off the vagabond still life to S.I. Newhouse for $29.3 million. The media mogul died in 2017 and Newhouse's estate put the work up for auction at Christie's in New York earlier this year.
Christie's promoted the painting as a "still-life of consummate formal inventiveness."
It had only been expected to fetch around $50 million, but the winning bid was $59 million. As is typical in high-end art world transactions, the auction house has not revealed the identity of the purchaser.
Mardirosian was prosecuted in federal court, convicted in 2008 for possession of stolen goods, and served a six-year prison sentence.
In a 2006 interview with The Boston Globe, he recalled how his client, Colvin, the Pittsfield gambler, had appeared one day in 1978 with the seven stolen paintings in a bag.
"He was going to bring them to Florida to fence them," the attorney stated. "But I told him that if he ever got caught with them, he'd be in real trouble. So he left them upstairs in my attic in a big plastic bag."
Colvin never picked them up, of course, as he was shot to death the following year.
Mardirosian eventually concluded he had a legitimate claim to ownership. In 1988, he shipped the paintings to Monaco and then to Switzerland, where they were stashed in a vault, according to federal court records.
Eleven years later, Mardirosian, without revealing his identity, traded the work back to Bakwin in return for the title to the six other stolen paintings.
The First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston later upheld Mardirosian's conviction of possessing stolen paintings, and described how the Cezanne was returned to Bakwin in London with the help of the Art Loss Register, 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 Cezanne and bring it to the boardroom. He left the room and headed to the front of the building," the court documents stated. "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 Cezanne,'' the court wrote.
Bakwin, who had spent millions of dollars over two decades searching for his Cezanne and who only reluctantly agreed to hand over the title to the six other paintings in return, sold the painting at a December 1999 Sotheby's auction to Newhouse, who held onto it until his death in 2017.
"There was no one like S.I. Newhouse and his art collection 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, prior to the auction.
Wait, there's more.
In August 2011, The Boston Globe reported that a Barnstable Superior Court jury awarded to Bakwin, then 76, a $3 million civil judgment against Mardirosian, of Falmouth, his former criminal defense attorney who was still in prison, and his family to recoup the cost of tracking down the stolen art collection. The attorney appealed unsuccessfully to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bakwin, by then living in Ossining, N.Y., told the Globe: "My hobby was collecting works of art. When they're taken away from you, you feel like something has left your life. It's a big hole.''
"I was lax," he said in an Eagle interview. "I got really very depressed about the theft. It kept me upset and angry, and changed my philosophy about life. Besides my wife and children, the paintings were my most precious things." Bakwin died last Dec. 3 in Suffolk, Va.
"I know some things don't look good here, but I believe I have a legitimate case to make," Mardirosian said during a 1999 London court hearing. "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."
In 2010, retired Massachusetts State Police Major John "Jack" Flaherty, of Williamstown, said the case was unique.
"He had those paintings for 28 years. He knew they were stolen. His client was dead," he pointed out. "Why didn't he turn them in?"
"It was not your run-of-the-mill, everyday theft," said Flaherty, who was then an investigator working with the Berkshire District Attorney's Office. "Every once in a while, a new piece of information would come up, and it would be a dead end."
Geoffrey Kelly, an FBI special agent who worked on the case for six years, said this type of theft, and the time lapsed between when it was stolen and when it was returned, is not as uncommon as people would think, calling it a "crime of opportunity."
"For everyone involved, it was a really good sense of closure," Kelly said. "It's a long road. I know [Bakwin] was happy to finally get them back, and I think it's something that we can finally put behind us."
Information from the Boston Globe, The New York Times and Eagle archives was included in this report.
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