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Couple loses bid to recover masks given to Madoff

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - It wasn't just billions of dollars that were lost when Bernard Madoff proved to be a crook.

A federal judge rejected a California couple's request to recover a sculpture of three African masks that they gave the now-imprisoned Ponzi schemer in 2006, court papers show.

Robert Baird and Randy Morrison Baird gave the sculpture as a "thank you" gift for Madoff's having seemingly given them a "financial security blanket" during their more than six years as clients of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.

The Bairds said their 13-year-old daughter gave Madoff the sculpture at his Manhattan office. They said the sculpture was worth several hundred dollars, and acquired by Robert Baird's father in Liberia in the 1970s.

"Madoff appeared quite pleased with the gift," Randy Morrison Baird said in court papers. "He looked her (the daughter) in the eye and smiled at her, and then looked at my husband and me and thanked us." Madoff later followed up with a handwritten thank-you note, the Bairds said.

The Bairds demanded the return of the sculpture after Madoff's December 11, 2008 arrest.

But U.S. marshals confiscated the sculpture and other Madoff belongings, intending to auction them. They pulled the sculpture from the auction block when the Bairds learned it was about to be sold, until the dispute could be resolved.

The Bairds said they would not have given Madoff the sculpture had they known he was a fraud, and gave it under the mistaken belief that he was handling their money honestly.

But U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin, the judge who sentenced Madoff to 150 years in prison, said the Bairds could not recover the sculpture, noting their having taken "great care" in choosing a gift that held "sentimental value" to them.

"The Bairds are understandably frustrated by their loss of both a cherished family heirloom and their investments. But they are not alone," Chin wrote on Tuesday. "Moreover, under the law, a gift is not revocable merely because the premise for the gift was false."

Randy Morrison Baird, reached by email, had no immediate comment.

U.S. marshals have raised tens of millions of dollars by selling or auctioning homes, cars, antiques, jewelry, wine and even underwear of Madoff, with sums recovered going to victims.

The case is U.S. v. Madoff, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 09-00213.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York)

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