Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman and Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo were sent to prison on Tuesday for their role in trying to fence a stolen Matisse painting. Marcuello, 46, of Miami received 33 months in prison and Ornelas, 50, of Mexico was sentenced to 21 months in prison. The two were arrested last summer when they posed as art collectors at the Loews Hotel and tried to sell the Matisse to undercover FBI agents.
Marcuello, in a series of meetings with undercover agents of the FBI, negotiated the sale of an original Henri Matisse painting entitled “Odalisque in Red Pants,” which had been stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas, Venezuela, around 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. 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.
Agents from Interpol, the FBI and Venezuelan, British, Spanish and French police have been searching for the 1925 Henri Matisse painting for nearly 10 years, but no one knew where it was.
‘Odalisque in Red Pants’ had been on tour to other museums several years previously and at some point been switched with a forgery.
The Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum had bought the original painting in 1981, but how and when the painting was replaced with a replica, and by whom are questions still unanswered.
The director of Caracas Museum, Rita Salvestrini, suggested that the switch many years ago had been done by an insider. She said in 2003, when the forgery was first discovered, ‘There had to be inside complicity. You can’t just make the switch freely inside the museum.’
There are clear differences between the original and the replica, which Salvestrini explained at a press conference: The fake has a dark shadow behind the dancer, while the original does not. In the lower right hand corner, the genuine painting has seven green stripes. The fake has six.
The Sofia Imber museum purchased the painting from the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1981 for $400,000. It has been on display ever since, except for a brief loan for a Spanish exhibition in 1997.
The fake, right, has a dark shadow behind the dancer, while the original, left, does not. In the lower right hand corner of the genuine painting there are seven green stripes. The fake has six.
Caracas newspaper El Mundo speculated that the Matisse may have been swapped during the 1997 Spanish exhibition loan. Other clues suggest the painting may have been stolen in 2000.
In November 2002, Miami art collector Genaro Ambrosino heard the piece was up for sale and contacted Rita Salvestrini.
She pointed out that the painting was in the museum and was not for sale, but after experts examined it they declared it a forgery.
Salvestrini has subsequently discovered that over the years a handful of people in the art world had heard rumours that ‘Odalisque in Red Pants’ was being offered for sale.
Some gallery owners had been approached and been offered the painting but investigators have yet to name anyone thought to be complicit in the painting’s theft and recent reappearance.
‘The people who knew that the piece was being circulated around the world never informed us,’ said Salvestrini. ‘The thing is, it didn’t occur to anyone the piece could have been authentic.’
‘Odalisque in Red Pants’ is not the only painting by Henri Matisse to have been logged in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File (NSAF) database of stolen art and cultural property:
In 2006 the French painter’s 1904 masterpiece Luxembourg Gardens was stolen from a Rio de Janeiro museum during the carnival, along with paintings by Picasso, Dali and Monet.
A SERIES OF SUCCESSFUL STINGS: THE FBI ART CRIME TEAM EXPLAINED
The FBI’s rapid deployment Art Crime Team was created in 2004 and is composed of 14 special agents, each responsible for art and cultural property crime cases in specific geographic regions.
The Art Crime Team is coordinated through the FBI’s Art Theft Program in Washington, D.C. where agents receive specialized training in art and cultural property investigations.
Once trained they can assist in art-related investigations worldwide in alongside foreign law enforcement officials and FBI legal attaché offices.
Stolen objects are submitted for entry to the National Stolen Art File (NSAF) by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. When an object is recovered, it is removed from the database.
Since its inception, the Art Crime Team has recovered more than 2,650 items valued at over $150 million including:
Francisco de Goya’s 1778 painting Children With a Cart. The painting was stolen while being transported from the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio to the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Around 100 paintings stolen from a Florida family’s art collection in a fine art storage facility, including works by Picasso, Rothko, Matisse and others, were recovered from Chicago, New York and Tokyo.
Rembrandt’s Self Portrait (1630) was recovered in a sting operation in Copenhagen carried out in cooperation with ICE and law enforcement agencies in Sweden and Denmark. The FBI had also previously recovered Renoir’s The Young Parisian. Both paintings had been stolen from the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm in 2000.
700 pre-Colombian artifacts were recovered in Miami in a sting operation in coordination with the Ecuadorian authorities.
Three paintings by the German painter Heinrich Buerkel (1802-1869), stolen at the conclusion of World War II and consigned for sale at an auction house near Philadelphia in 2005.
More than a dozen women wearing nothing but red genie pants demand return of art work to Venezuela
The guards in front of Caracas’s Museum of Contemporary Art did not appear to feel too threatened by the protest taking place on their doorstep.
Early one recent morning more than a dozen women wearing nothing but red genie pants gathered at the doors of the institution from where Henri Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Trousers went missing, to ask for the prompt return of the painting they were emulating.
The women were photographed by the Venezuelan artist Violette Bule in poses reminiscent of the 1925 post-impressionist work that was replaced with a fake over a decade ago.
“My main goal is to have the original returned but I also want to call attention to the irony behind the way the art market works,” said Bule, who masterminded the ensemble. “After this scandal, the Odalisque will surely be worth much more,” she added.
Though the painting is said to have been recovered by FBI agents in Miami, details of the operation or the exact whereabouts of the Odalisque – valued at well over $3m – have yet to be revealed. Two weeks ago, the Venezuelan attorney general, Luisa Ortega, declared to the press that her two attempts to contact US officials regarding the painting had gone unanswered. No other announcements have been made since.
In the meantime, the mystery behind the theft of the semi-naked woman is leading some to doubt whether the oil painting allegedly offered to the undercover agents is not in fact another copy.
“I am fascinated about how art works are reproduced. At the end of the day, it turns out, that it doesn’t really matter if you are looking at the original or at the fake,” Bule said.
But for Wanda de Guébriant, who directs the Archive Matisse in France, telling the original from the fake is central to her role. “The FBI called me shortly after the operation happened. They said they’d call again but they haven’t. Who knows?” said Guébriant. “Depending on who is involved, sometimes we never find out what happens,” she added.
For Guillermo Barrios, an expert in museum studies, the irony is twofold. He said: “After all the attention this has garnered the fake too will worth a lot of money. It’s become a cult figure”.