By Jay Weaver, The Miami Herald
MIAMI — A stolen Matisse masterpiece taken on a long and wild international ride that ended with a thwarted black market sale in Miami Beach has finally made it back home to Venezuela.
FBI agents in Miami led the investigation to recover the $3.7 million painting, called “Odalisque in Red Pants,” which was unveiled earlier this month amid much fanfare at the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art.
“It was a high-security operation,” said Barry Golden, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, which took custody of the nude in Miami last year and handed it off to Venezuelan authorities in July.
The delivery closed the book on an art world heist with all the twists of a Hollywood whodunnit — but has not entirely resolved the mystery of who stole the 1925 masterwork in the first place.
The Venezuelan museum, which had bought the Henri Matisse painting for about $500,000 from a New York gallery in 1981, reported that it had been stolen in December 2002 — apparently swapped for a forgery after it was lent to an exhibit in Spain.
But a Miami FBI agent who has led the investigation to recover the work confirmed Wednesday that it was actually stolen sometime before September 2000, and spotted in Paris a year later.
A decade after that, the painting ended up in Mexico City. Then, during an undercover operation in July 2012, the FBI recovered the painting from a Miami man and Mexican woman who tried to fence it for $740,000 in a Miami Beach hotel room.
“We learned through debriefings that she and her associates got the painting from an individual who died and they took it from his possessions,” FBI special agent Robert Giczy told the Miami Herald.
The thieves who tried to sell the painting were Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, 48, of Miami, and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo, 53, of Mexico City. Last year, they were sentenced to nearly three years and two years, respectively, after pleading guilty to conspiring to transport and sell stolen property.
To this day, the FBI and other law enforcement authorities cannot be certain how the Matisse was stolen from the Caracas museum.
Marcuello told the FBI it was an inside job, supporting museum director Rita Salvestrini’s suspicion that the painting was taken by someone with access to the museum.
“The theft involved replacing the original painting with a forged replica on the museum’s walls to deceive museum staff and visitors,” according to an FBI affidavit filed with the criminal complaint against Marcuello and Ornelas.
Investigators from Venezuela, Spain, France, Britain, Interpol, and the FBI pursued an array of leads, according to published reports.
A Caracas newspaper suggested the swap happened during the exhibit loan in Spain.
The Associated Press said French police investigated a lead that the painting was taken to Matisse’s home country.
This much is certain: In October 2011, the FBI’s art crime team learned from an informant that the Matisse was in Mexico and available on the black market.
The piece found its way to Ornelas’ home in Mexico City after she, her husband, and others took it from a Mexican man who died, according to the FBI’s Giczy. Marcuello knew Ornelas through her husband, who was one of his “main associates,” according to the FBI. The husband was not charged.
FBI undercover agents tracked down the painting and made arrangements to buy it from Marcuello and Ornelas.
Marcuello met a half-dozen times to discuss the sale with an undercover agent at the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse in Miami Beach and at a Starbucks coffee shop in Coral Gables.
The agent told Marcuello that he had a “friend,” an art dealer, who had been involved in the sales of two other stolen paintings and that he wanted to buy the “Odalisque in Red Pants.”
Marcuello negotiated a discounted sales price because the painting was stolen, and arranged for emails of the artwork to be sent to the dealer, who was actually an undercover agent.
Meanwhile, Ornelas, the wife of Marcuello’s associate in Mexico, agreed to bring the painting to Miami.
On July 16, 2012, Ornelas flew from Mexico City to Miami. She carried the multimillion-dollar artwork in a red tube through customs at Miami International Airport.
The next day, Marcuello and Ornellas agreed to meet with the two undercover agents in a room at the Loews Hotel to finalize the purchase.
Marcuello asked for 20 percent of the painting’s estimated $3.7 million value. The undercover agents agreed to give them $550,000 and wire the balance to Mexico.
“At the meeting, we got to inspect and authenticate the painting,” said the FBI’s Giczy, who led the probe. “No cash was exchanged.”
Agents arrested Marcuello and Ornelas in the room.
But that would not be the end of the story for the “Odalisque in Red Pants.”
Over the next year, the FBI consulted with art experts, including a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to verify the ownership history of the painting before turning it over to the Venezuelans.
Said Giczy: “That freed the painting so it could be repatriated.”
This summer, the renowned French painter’s well-traveled canvas was flown from Texas and returned to the Caracas museum.
Photo via WikiCommons
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