SINGAPORE - Singapore art gallery Mandala Fine Art has ceased operations here, but up to 39 artists have not been able to reclaim their art pieces, estimated to be worth more than $1 million.
Sri-Lankan gallery owner Vitharana Mudiyanselage Hemasiri Vitharana - who goes by Rayan - left Singapore last year, leaving the artworks behind in at least two storage facilities, which will not release the works because they are still owed rent.
When The Straits Times visited the premises of the Mandala Fine Art gallery in Kallang Avenue last Friday (Feb 3), it was vacant and its glass doors were chained.
Mr Vitharana also owes artists and former employees thousands of dollars in salaries and transportation costs, according to former gallery staff and 15 artists, who spoke to The Straits Times.
Among the artists hoping to get their work back is Ukrainian underwater painter Alexander Belozor, 54, who has appealed to the Embassy of Ukraine in Singapore for help.
Last week, Zoe, a friend of the artist, uploaded an entry on his blog claiming that 14 of his paintings are still in Singapore and had not been returned after being exhibited at the Asia Dive Expo in April last year.
Mandala Fine Art also owes Belozor about US$2,000 (S$2,800) in transportation costs, says Zoe, who spoke to The Straits Times on the artist's behalf.
While the Embassy of Ukraine was able to get in touch with Mr Vitharana, Belozor said months of communication has 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 through e-mail.
When contacted by The Straits Times, Mr Vitharana said in an e-mail that Belozor's works are "safe and secure in a private place in Singapore".
But he admitted that he had lost $500,000 since setting up the company in 2014 and still owes money to the storage spaces.
"To clear Alexander's work from there, we do need to do some payments. This is why his work is stuck," he said.
But others, too, are waiting for their pieces to be returned.
Last September, a police report was made on behalf of 38 artists from countries such as South Africa, the United Kingdom and Thailand.
They had sent their works to Singapore in 2015 for the Mandala Wildlife Art Exhibition - a show mounted by the gallery - and were "stonewalled" by Mr Vitharana when they later asked for their works to be returned, according to the police report.
Police confirmed that a report was lodged and that "the complainant was advised on his legal recourse".
UK artist Jeremy Paul said three of his paintings, valued at about $10,000, have not been returned. He added that the gallery also owes him £500 (S$886.26) for framing and delivery of the art.
Paul said in an e-mail: "(Mr Vitharana) broke the terms of my contract with Mandala in that the transport fees were not paid and no art has been returned. They were supposed to be returned after the exhibition closed in December 2015."
As of Tuesday, 14 of the 38 artists, who lodged the police report, have confirmed that their artworks are still unreturned.
Mr Vitharana told The Straits Times that these paintings are stuck in storage owned by Ocean Logistics, which is located in Jalan Pemimpin, and claims 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 brought the matter to the small claims court last April.
As a result, Mr Vitharana paid half of the bill, $5,000 in May 2016, and promised to settle the rest by the end of the month. To date, the outstanding amount has snowballed to $18,776 and Mr Yeo says he will be discussing his next steps with his lawyer.
Mr Yeo, who believes there are up to 100 pieces of art in storage, said: "If there's no payment, nothing can be taken out from the store. Someone has to foot the bill."
As for salaries owed, former employee Vincent Ong says he is owed about $11,000 in salary. While two others, who declined to be named, claimed they are owed $3,000 each.
Mr Ong said: "He paid me for two months only and the next two months or so, he didn't pay. And he never pays on time."
The gallery is no stranger to controversy.
In June 2016, it was accused of copying the work of photographer Vin PSK and putting it up for sale for $6,000 at the Mandala Wildlife Art Exhibition.
"Unfortunately, if galleries are not responsive or communicative, there's not much than an artist can do except perhaps report to police or sue the gallery. But a lawsuit is expensive and most artists cannot afford it," said Ms Aniela Rahardja, director of Element Art Space and secretary of Art Galleries Association (Singapore).
The association has 29 members, all of whom have to sign a code of ethics and professional practice. Mandala Fine Art was not part of the association.
While Mr Vitharana said he plans to return to Singapore, he added that it does not change anything "because there is no source of income there".
"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 the artists who just want their work back.
"This is such a draining situation, and this is so unjust," said Zoe on behalf of Belozor. "We don't even care about that money anymore, even though Alexander has bad financial problems, we only hope to get the artworks back."
Additional reporting Cara Wong