Wednesday, July 18, 2012

$3 million stolen Henri Matisse recovered by FBI

The one on the left is the real "Odalisque in Red Pants" and the one on the right was a fake on display Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas, Venezuela.  According to the USAO press release Marcuello Guzman and Ornelas Lazo were arrested today:

According to the affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, this case was the result of an FBI undercover investigation. According to the allegations in the complaint affidavit, Marcuello negotiated the sale of the Matisse painting, which had been previously stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Caracas (MACCSI)) in Caracas, Venezuela in December 2002. The painting is valued at approximately $3 million. Marcuello allegedly admitted to the undercover agents during a meeting that he knew the painting was stolen and offered to sell the stolen painting for approximately $740,000.00. As part of the negotiations, Marcuello further agreed to have the painting transported by courier to the United States from Mexico, where the painting was being stored. The courier was subsequently identified as co-defendant Ornelas.

According to the affidavit, on July 16, 2012, Ornelas arrived at the Miami International Airport from Mexico City, Mexico, hand-carrying a red tube containing the painting. On July 17, 2012, defendants Marcuello and Ornelas met with undercover agents and produced the Matisse painting titled “Odalisque in Red Pants” from inside the red tube. Upon inspection by the undercover agents, the painting appeared consistent with the original Henri Matisse painting reported stolen from the MACCSI museum. At the conclusion of the meeting, Marcuello and Ornelas were arrested.

The Huffington Post has some interesting details:

In 2002, Venezuelan-born Miami art collector Genaro Ambrosino contacted SICAM after hearing that the painting was for sale. Director Rita Salvestrini told him "Odalisque in Red Pants" wasn't on the market, at which point museum officials discovered that the one in their collection had been swapped for a forgery.
One Venezuelan newspaper argued the Matisse may have been swapped during an exhibition loan in Spain in 1997, according to the Daily Mail, while other evidence points to the exchange having happened in 2000.
Either way, “Odalisque in Red Pants” had been a fixture on Art Loss Register's list of most valuable missing artwork. If convicted, according to the U.S. Attorney's office, Marcuello and Ornelas each face a possible maximum statutory sentence of up to ten years in prison.
Unfortunately, most stolen artwork is rarely recovered. According to the Christian Science Monitor, only about 15 percent of missing or stolen art returns to its rightful owner.
In 2004, the FBI created an Art Crime Team and set up a National Stolen Art File database. In the past 9 years, they have recovered over 2,650 items that amount to over $150 million, according to the Daily Mail.
"Generally speaking, art thieves are fairly good criminals, but they're terrible businessmen," Robert Wittman, an art-security consultant and former investigator for the FBI's national Art Crime Team, told the Associated Press. "And the true art is not the stealing, it's the selling."

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