The mystery surrounding the theft of seven French Expressionist oil paintings from a wealthy American collector almost 30 years ago has been solved by a London court case. The oil-on-canvases, worth at least 20 million pounds stirling, are thought to have shuttled back and forth for decades between Massachusetts, Monaco, a Swiss bank vault and the British offices of Sotheby’s.
The London based Art Loss Register (ALR) recently revealed that it was in the process of recovering four of the artworks - two portraits by Chaim Soutine and two other oil paintings by Maurice de Vlaminck and Maurice Utrillo. All were produced early in the 20th century.
Another of the stolen oil paintings, a still life by Paul Cezanne, entitled Bouteille et Fruits, was returned to the owner, Michael Bakwin, seven years ago following protracted negotiations conducted by Julian Radcliffe, the ALR’s founder.
The seven oil paintings were originally acquired by Ruth and Henry Bakwin, East coast heirs to a US meat packing business, who knew the artists in the 1920s. Michael Bakwin, their son, inherited the oil paintings. In 1978 burglars stole them from his home in Stockbridge, western Massachusetts, while he was away on holiday.
One of the suspected thieves, who allegedly left the haul in a plastic bag at his lawyer’s offices, was subsequently shot dead by two men who came to his home to collect a debt.
The thefts were recorded on the ALR and Mr. Radcliffe agreed to act for the US collector, who is now in his 80s.
Mr Radcliffe told the Guardian: “In 1999 an attempt to insure the oil paintings coming from Russia for sale in London was referred to us. There followed a delicate negotiation based on the principal of not paying a ransom. This refusal to pay cash led to an agreement with the police that the Cezanne should be surrendered in return for relinquishing title to the other six stolen oil paintings.
“The power of the ALR’s database would effectively prevent the sale of the oil paintings rendering them valueless to holders who refused to reveal their identity or how they obtained the oil paintings.”
A contract was signed by the ALR and the Cezanne handed back to Mr Bakwin. “We did not believe the contract was valid,” Mr Radcliffe explained.
In 2004, the two Soutines, the de Vlaminck and the Utrillo were sent to Sotheby's in London, for sale by a Panamanian company. The auction house immediately contacted the Art Loss Register, which initiated legal action to recover them.
Earlier this week the High Court in London had been due to hear evidence of disputed ownership but when it came before the judge the Panamanian company failed to appear and was not represented.
Sotheby’s yesterday confirmed it was holding the four Expressionist artworks and awaiting directions from the court. “We never offered them for sale,” said a spokeswoman.
The ALR, which records lost and stolen art, was formed in 1991 through a partnership between leading auction houses and art trade associations, the insurance industry, and the International Foundation for Art Research.
Michael Bakwin’s brother has recently sent to Christie’s auction house an oil painting by Van Gogh, which is expected to make $40 million at auction.
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