Miami is known as an up-and-coming art town thanks to local art stars, vibrant Wynwood galleries, and Art Basel Miami Beach. But as it turns out, it's also home to black market art dealing as well.
Two people were arrested Tuesday on Miami Beach after trying to sell what is believed to be Henri Matisse's 1925 painting "Odalisque in Red Pants" to undercover agents for $740,000, according to the FBI. The painting has been missing from the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum in Caracas, Venezuela since 2002, having famously been swapped for a fake that went unnoticed for what some speculate might have been several years.
The FBI identified the accused as Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, 46, of Miami, and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo, 50, of Mexico City, Mexico. According to U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Wilfredo Ferrer, Marcuello admitted to the agents during a meeting that he knew the $3 million painting was stolen before negotiating a deal.
Once the price was agreed upon, Ornelas carried the painting in a red tube from Mexico through Miami International Airport before she and Marcuello met the undercover agents to transfer possession. According to Local10, the two were arrested after the deal was completed in a room at the Loews Hotel in Miami Beach.
It is not yet known if Marcuello and Ornelas were involved in the original theft of the painting, details of which remain a mystery despite intense work from Interpol, the FBI, and police in France and Spain.
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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