Now in Legal Rebels:
Posted Apr 16, 2010 12:28 am CDT
It was reportedly the biggest art theft in Massachusetts state history, and Robert Mardirosian’s client committed it.
When David Colvin brought the paintings—including a Cezanne still life which eventually sold at auction years later for nearly $30 million—to Mardirosian shortly after the 1978 heist, the lawyer initially held them for safekeeping, recounts a written opinion on the case by the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But at some point after Colvin was shot to death in 1979 the former state prosecutor apparently succumbed to the temptation of trying to cash in on their extraordinary value. He held the paintings until 1988, then shipped them to a Swiss bank, according to prosecutors and the appellate opinion. After cutting a deal to return the Cezanne in order to obtain legal title to the other paintings, which were of far lesser value, Mardirosian finally tried to sell them in London, anonymously, approximately a decade ago.
That led to his arrest and federal conviction for possessing stolen property which had crossed a United States boundary. Yesterday, the appellate court upheld Mardirosian’s conviction and seven-year prison term, finding the retired attorney’s argument that he believed he had legal title to the paintings unpersuasive.
Contracts entered into for illegal purposes are void, the court pointed out. And, whether or not Mardirosian really believed that he had subsequently obtained legal title to the paintings, he could not and did not claim that he had acted innocently when he kept them after his client died rather than contacting authorities.
“We know of no case—certainly, none has been cited by the parties—that has recognized a mistake-of-fact defense once all the elements of the crime have been met. Although we are hesitant to announce categorically that we would never extend the doctrine, the facts of this case illustrate why we would be reluctant to to do so, and why we will not do so here,” the court writes.
“Were we to recognize subsequent mistakes of fact, sophisticated criminals would have the incentive to generate reasons to believe that their conduct is no longer wrongful. Like Mardirosian, some might seek to ‘contract’ with their victims and could use more violent means of persuasion. We could not countenance such a result.”
Hat tip: Associated Press.
ABAJournal.com: “Retired Lawyer, 74, a ‘Glorified Fence,’ Gets 7 Years in Cezanne Case”