Anoush Mathevosian, aft left

GREAT NECK, N.Y.  —  Sometimes fairy tales don’t come true. The story of Anoush Mathevosian and the Armenian Genocide museum in Washington, DC is one such case.

Anoush’s grandfather was killed in the Genocide, and her father deported to Persia, where he grew up in an orphanage. Anoush was born in Iran in 1926. She and her sister worked hard after coming to the United States, and eventually did well for themselves financially, but she remained troubled by the effects of the Genocide on her family. She said, “Even today I remember that and I suffer for that…When I was 4 or 5 years of age, I would see my father would read papers with tearful eyes. I would ask my mother, ‘why is he crying?’ My mother would say, ‘I can’t explain to you — you are too young, but when you grow older I will explain.’”

She wanted to do something about it. Mathevosian said, “So I decided from early on that I have to find some means for building an Armenian Genocide museum somewhere. It happened that I trusted the Armenian Assembly [of America] and I talked to them. I said I have a small amount of money and I want to raise funds to build an Armenian Genocide museum.” She made a pledge of $3 million in 1996, inspired by Armenian Assembly cofounder and longtime chairman of its board of trustees Hirair Hovnanian. Hovnanian had donated approximately $1.6 million in April 1996 to establish the Armenian National Institute.

Then, Anoush said, “From 1996 to 2000, I was going to Washington DC every month, sometimes twice a month, in search of the proper building.” By late 1999, the Assembly had identified the National Bank of Washington as a possible museum site. It was in the vicinity of the White House. When she saw it in 2000, Anoush recalled, “I was very impressed. I said I have a small amount I will bring to you, and I expect you to raise funds. But it did not happen that way.”

She increased her pledge to 3.5 million dollars to buy this property, the cost of which was 7.25 million dollars, but did not have the funds right away. The remaining money, along with a temporary loan for Mathevosian’s share, was provided by Gerald L. Cafesjian and his foundation. Cafesjian independently had become interested in a memorial to the Genocide, and joined the Assembly as a trustee in 1998.

After the closing, on February 28, 2000, Anoush Mathevosian wrote a letter to the Assembly restating the purpose of her pledge, which, she wrote “is to foster the development of an Armenian Genocide Museum.” She added, “To be certain that future generations remain true to the intent of our donations, it should be clear that no changes will be made to the purpose and usage of the Museum; that no mortgages are taken against the property and that the Museum’s perpetuation is not jeopardized as such or encumbered in any way; and that there will be no subsequent changes to the name of the museum.” She concluded, “I am making this donation in memory of my parents and would like the Armenian Genocide Museum to be dedicated likewise.”

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Trusting Hovnanian and the Assembly, Mathevosian did not initially get any legally binding agreement in writing concerning her donation. This was the finding of the US District Court for the District of Columbia on January 26, 2011 (Memorandum Opinion, Civil Action Nos. 07-1259, 08-255, 08-1254 (CKK)).

Meanwhile, to create the museum, a new body, called the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, Inc. (AGMM), was formed in October 2003 with Anoush as one of the four trustees. As part of its creation, a transfer agreement required all assets connected to the future museum to be transferred by the Assembly to AGMM, and a grant agreement was signed on November 1, 2003 by Cafesjian, Hovnanian and Peter Vosbikian (then chairman of the Assembly’s board of directors). It insured Mathevosian had at least one vote on the new AGMM board of directors. However, the grant agreement also included a reversion clause added by Cafesjian. It stated that the bank, with 4 adjacent properties obtained and donated by Cafesjian by 2003 and held by AGMM for the museum, would be given to the Cafesjian Family Foundation (CFF) if the museum had not been built by December 31, 2010. This was to become the legal means for the museum property to be diverted from its initial purported purpose.

She endured serious health difficulties from 2003 to 2005, including a stroke, heart attack, and a collapsed lung, and therefore she was unable to directly participate in AGMM board meetings. She did appoint a representative.

Ostensibly, increasingly bitter disputes between the Armenian Assembly led by Hovnanian, and Cafesjian and CFF, hindered collaborative work in AGMM toward the creation of a museum, until the parties ended up in a whirlwind of suits and countersuits. This and lack of finances meant no museum was created by the December 31, 2010 deadline, so that Cafesjian and CFF legally were able to regain control of the properties.

There is quite a bit of speculation on the causes of this situation, starting from personality differences and different approaches to the scale and contents of the museum, and even extending so far as claims that interested outside parties (i.e. Turkey and the US government) worked to make the museum fail. There is no formal evidence publicly presented concerning the latter.

An Assembly representative declared for the record the following: “Cafesjian saw the price of the real estate went up a lot. He moved from efforts to complete the museum to efforts to stall completion, so that the reversionary interest would kick in. After his death, the properties were sold for an enormous profit.” Several attempts by the Mirror to contact the Cafesjian Family Foundation via email and telephone about the museum were unsuccessful.

Whatever the causes, the result was clear. Cafesjian and CFF legally won the right to sell the bank and adjacent properties, and indeed they sold the bank and three of the adjacent parcels for $57 million on April 4, 2017, thus making it impossible to use the site for a museum. In her January 26, 2011 Memorandum Opinion, District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said, “While the Court hopes that the Properties can be used for that purpose [an Armenian Genocide museum], the Court recognizes that CFF is not legally obligated to use the Properties to build a museum…”

US Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit Judge Wilkins in July 2014, after affirming the District Court’s decision, concluded, “More than seven years and millions of dollars of legal fees later, much of the parties’ work to achieve their dream of a museum appears to have been for naught, which is regrettable.” The Court of Appeals rejected the argument that the District Court wrongfully hid the joint donation of a Stanislav Libensky glass art piece to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the judge and Cafesjian instead of the judge recusing herself for conflict of interest. Mathevosian declared that this is indication of corruption.

The Cafesjian heirs and CFF have not issued any statement since the sale of the bank and adjacent properties concerning the use of the profit. There appears to be no indication that they will pursue the cause of building a Genocide museum with the profits from property initially purchased for that purpose.

The Armenian Assembly (armenian-assembly.org) declares that it is still pursuing that goal, despite the setbacks of the lawsuits and large legal expenditures against Cafesjian. The Assembly, with the Armenian National Institute and AGMM, has created an online museum, and according to a spokesman, “is searching for real estate now and actively intends to create a museum.” Furthermore, Hirair Hovnanian and his family foundation have the resources to one day fund such a museum.

Anoush Mathevosian spent all of her money on Armenian causes. In 1997, she funded Camp Siranoush in Armenia for children whose parents died in the Karabakh war. In 2002, she built the Mathevosian School in Vanadzor. She started the Mathevosian Scholarship through the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), and has supported FAR in many ways, as in Gyumri. She also donated to the Armenian-American Cultural Association and its project in Armenia, the Armenian American Wellness Center. She said, “I neglected myself but got the pleasure of helping people.”

Thus, at her advanced age, she has no money left to directly donate for her dream of a museum, which at the moment is far from realization. Theoretically, she still is entitled to sue the Cafesjian Foundation in court for legal redress for her share paid to purchase the bank property, but either a donor would have to support such a suit, or a law firm would have to do it pro bono. She said, “I want to make sure that the Genocide not be forgotten.” If a lawyer sues on her behalf, she promises to give all the proceeds to build a museum. However, so far, no suitable lawyer has offered his services.

 

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  • Joseph

    The Assembly, particularly Van Krikorian and Hrair Hovnanian were deceived but they were also naive and gullible. They were forewarned about Cafesjian, his modus operandi and utter lack of ethics on many occasions, yet were seduced by his seemingly large checkbook. Typically, in Cafesjian’s strategy, he will add a clause to force/obligate all investors to ensure that the project is completed by a predetermined date, when it is not (as happens quite often with any new venture), he structures the obligation in such a way through legal means that the other investors will be in default and the property will assumed in under his sole ownership. For supposedly smart business men and legal minds, they were duped by the crook Cafesjian. Cafesjian had no honor and the AAA is where it is these days because of it’s leadership or lack thereof.