Stolen $3 million painting found in Miami Beach hotel; two arrested

07/18/2012 5:00 AM

07/20/2012 8:44 AM

When brazen thieves stole Henri Matisse’s “Odalisque in Red Pants,” replacing the 1925 masterpiece with a forgery, they left a Venezuelan museum with a major mystery.

On Tuesday, nearly a decade after the work disappeared, FBI agents recovered it and arrested two people at the Miami Beach Loews Hotel when they tried to sell the $3-million piece to undercover agents.

Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, 46, of Miami, and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo, 50, of Mexico City are now accused of possessing and transporting the stolen art and trying to sell it for $740,000.

The two made their first court appearance Wednesday and a detention hearing is set for Friday. If convicted, they face a maximum sentence of 10 years.

The Caracas Contemporary Art Museum purchased the Matisse painting of a bare-chested woman lounging in red pants in 1981 for more than $400,000.

Matisse is known for his vibrant use of color. Odalisques –oriental-themed paintings of partially clothed women reclining, standing or sitting, usually on beds – were a popular theme for the French artist in the 1920s.

In 1997, the piece was loaned to a Spanish exhibition, according to the AP. After then, it remained in Caracas until it was stolen.

In 2002, museum staff realized it was the multi-million dollar piece was a fake. Law enforcement agents around the globe have been searching for it since.

At the time, Caracas museum leaders held a press conference. Museum director Rita Salvestrini said she suspected an inside job.

“You can’t just make the switch freely inside the museum,” she said. “There had to be inside complicity.”

Photos of the fake and the real piece, pointing out the differences, were released. The forgery left hanging in the gallery had extra shadows and a missing green stripe.

The theft, coupled with public vandalism of prized Venezuelan art and the government replacing longtime art directors with politicians’ friends, sparked an uproar in the artistic community against President Hugo Chávez. Art lovers accused him of neglecting the country’s artistic patrimony, according to Rutgers assistant professor Tatiana Flores.

“The theft of the Matisse was one of many events that made people feel outraged at the state of art under Chávez,” she said. “The impact was really quite stunning.”

The artistic landscape started to shift as art lovers boycotted museums led by Chávez’s sympathizers in favor of newly created galleries, some of which are still popular today, Flores said.

Some news outlets suggested the piece may have been switched with the fake during the loan to Spain. The FBI did not offer many details of its investigation and recovery.

The multi-million-dollar piece was thought to have been taken by a Venezuelan woman who lived in Miami Beach, according to an AP report after the theft. She is thought to have taken the piece to Fortress Art Storage in Miami, then smuggled it to Spain.

The woman was not named.

In the Wednesday announcement by U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer, officials said Ornelas flew into Miami International Airport from Mexico City on Monday carrying a red tube with the painting rolled inside. She met up with Marcuello.

The two later met up with buyers – actually undercover agents – at the Loews, according to WPLG-Channel 10 . After the sale was arranged, agents arrested the duo, according to the FBI.

Loews Hotel spokeswoman Sarah Murov said the hotel was “not involved” in the case but is cooperating with the investigation.

“It’s an FBI matter,” she said.

The piece isn’t the only Matisse painting to be taken.

The FBI database includes five stolen Matisses, including a collection of 62 sketches. The list includes Luxembourg Garden, an oil painting from 1905 that was reported to be up for sale on a Russian website in 2006, according to The Guardian in London.

In 1999, the Seattle Art Museum returned another of Matisse’s stolen odalisques, named simply “Odalisque,” to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, a prominent Jewish art dealer in Paris.

The Nazis had taken the piece, which later ended up at the museum.

Tuesday’s recovery is big news in the art world because the work is so well known and the idea of white-color crimes and inside jobs was so shocking, said Rebecca Nagy, director of the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville.

“Just the name is massive. He’s an artist comparable to Picasso or Monet or Rembrandt,” she said. “This is the stuff of movies and novels.”

As of Wednesday, the “Odalisque in Red Pants” was no longer listed as stolen.

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