Singapore art gallery Mandala Fine Art has ceased operations, but up to 39 artists have not been able to reclaim their artworks, estimated to be worth more than $1 million.
Sri Lankan gallery owner Vitharana Mudiyanselage Hemasiri Vitharana left Singapore last year, leaving the works in storage facilities, which will not release them as they are owed rent.
When The Straits Times visited the gallery's premises in Kallang Avenue last Friday, the unit was vacant and its glass doors were chained.
Mr Vitharana also owes artists and former employees thousands in salaries and transport costs, according to former staff and 15 artists who spoke to The Straits Times.
Among these artists is Ukrainian painter Alexander Belozor, 54, who has appealed to the Embassy of Ukraine in Singapore for help.
Last week, a friend of the artist, named Zoe, posted an entry on his blog claiming that 14 of his paintings are still in Singapore and were not returned after being shown at last April's Asia Dive Expo.
Mandala Fine Art also owes Mr Belozor about US$2,000 (S$2,800) in transport costs, said Zoe, who spoke to The Straits Times on the artist's behalf.
While the embassy was able to get in touch with Mr Vitharana, Mr Belozor said that months of communication have led to naught.
"We decided to make the information public, to warn everyone and to try to find the artworks, which is the main goal for us now," said Zoe in an e-mail.
When contacted by The Straits Times, Mr Vitharana said in an e-mail that Mr Belozor's works are "safe and secure in a private place in Singapore".
But he said that he had lost $500,000 since setting up the company in 2014 and still owed money to the storage facilities. "To clear Alexander's work from there, we do need to do some payments. This is why his work is stuck," he said.
Others, too, are waiting. Last September, a police report was made on behalf of 38 artists from countries such as South Africa, Britain and Thailand.
They sent their works to Singapore in 2015 for a show mounted by the gallery, and were "stonewalled" by Mr Vitharana when they asked for them to be returned, according to the police report.
Police confirmed that a report was made and "the complainant was advised on his legal recourse".
British artist Jeremy Paul said that three of his paintings, valued at about $10,000, have not been returned. He added that the gallery also owes him £500 (S$880) for framing and delivery.
Mr Paul said in an e-mail that Mr Vitharana "broke the terms of my contract with Mandala in that the transport fees were not paid and no art has been returned". He added that the artworks were supposed to have been returned after the exhibition closed in December 2015.
As of yesterday, 14 of the 38 artists who lodged the police report have confirmed that their works have still not been returned.
Mr Vitharana told The Straits Times that these paintings are stuck in a storage facility owned by Ocean Logistics, in Jalan Pemimpin. He claimed to have paid 40 to 50 per cent of the fees owed.
An owner of Ocean Logistics, Mr Gary Yeo, told The Straits Times that he took the matter to the Small Claims Tribunal last April.
As a result, Mr Vitharana paid half of the bill - $5,000 - last May and promised to settle the rest by the end of the month. The outstanding amount has snowballed to $18,776 and Mr Yeo said he will be discussing his next steps with his lawyer.
He believes that up to 100 artworks are in storage. "If there's no payment, nothing can be taken out from the store," he said. "Someone has to foot the bill."
Employees' salaries not paid
Meanwhile, former employee Vincent Ong said he is owed about $11,000. Two others, who declined to be named, claimed to be owed $3,000 each. Mr Ong said: "He paid me for only two months and the next two months or so, he didn't pay. And he never pays on time."
The gallery is no stranger to controversy. Last June, it was accused of reproducing photographer Vin PSK's work without permission and trying to sell the copy for $6,000.
Ms Aniela Rahardja, secretary of the Art Galleries Association (Singapore), said: "Unfortunately, if galleries are not responsive or communicative, there's not much that an artist can do, except perhaps report to police or sue the gallery.
"But a lawsuit is expensive and most artists cannot afford it."
The association's 29 members have to sign a professional practices and ethics code. Mandala Fine Art was not part of the association.
Mr Vitharana's present whereabouts are unknown. He said he plans to return but "there is no source of income" for him here.
"We accept our mistakes and we would like to apologise officially to all the parties who had to undergo difficulties because of us and the situation," he added. But apologies mean nothing to some artists.
"This is such a draining situation, and this is so unjust," said Zoe. "We don't even care about that money any more, even though Alexander has bad financial problems. We only hope to get the artworks back."
•Additional reporting by Cara Wong