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."
Check out these other legendary art heists:
18 paintings including two by Fra Angelico, were stolen from New York art dealer Colnaghi's. The thieves broke in through a skylight, a manourve that could have gone very wrong, sending the thieves flying down the stairwell. Once inside, the thieves trod on canvases and failed to choose the most valuable paintings, but still made off with enough to be worth $6 million. Only 14 of the works were recovered. PICTURE: Wikimedia
140 objects, including Maya and Aztec Gold, Mixtec and Zapotec sculptures, were stolen from Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve 1985. The alarms had not been working for three years, thieves simply removed the glass from the cases. PICTURE: Wikimedia
Not all art thieves are financially motivated. Thieves who stole Van Gogh's The Fortification of Paris with Houses, Picasso's Poverty and Gauguin's Tahitian Landscape from the Whitworth gallery in Manchester hid the works behind a public toilet. A note pinned to the tube said they stole the paintings to highlight security gaps at the gallery. How public spirited of them. IMAGE: Wikipaintings
A rich American collector, Charles Wrightsman, bought Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington and planned to take it to America with him. Due to public outrage, the government matched the sum ($392,000) and it was hung in the National Gallery. It was stolen three weeks later, and the thief demanded a ransom, which was not granted. The Duke was later deposited in the left-luggage office of New Street station in Birmingham. A 61-year-old retired truck driver confessed to the theft. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons UPDATE: A previous version of this slide incorrectly stated that the artwork was still at large, when in fact the painting has been restored. We apologize for the error.
Thieves overpowered the guide and chucked the painting the Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Leonardo Da Vinci out of the window, telling tourists "Don't worry love, we're the police. This is just practice". The painting was found at the offices of one of Scotland's most successful law firms. Several solicitors were arrested, some of whom were said to be scrutinizing a contract which would have allowed 'legal repatriation' of the painting. The painting was recovered and returned to the Buccleugh family. IMAGE: Wikipedia
A masked thief dressed in black stole five paintings from Paris's Musee d'Art Moderne, including Pablo Picasso's Le Pigeon aux Petits-Pois and La Pastorale by Henri Matisse. Collectively the paintings are worth about €100m. The CCTV system had failed, the intruder had trigged no alarms and the night watchmen hadn't noticed the break in until it was too late. The CCTV had been reported as broken, but hadn't been fixed adequately. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons
Thieves seized a Rembrandt self portrait and two Renoir paintings from the National Museum in Stockholm. One thief threatened an unarmed guard with a submachine gun while the other two grabbed paintings. They scattered nails on the floor to slow down pursuit and got away on a motorboat. The thieves went on to request $10 million per painting in ransoms through a lawyer who was then arrested in connection with the robbery. The paintings are still missing. IMAGE: Wikipedia
Thieves made off with $300 million worth of art works, including The Concert by Vermeer and works by Rembrandt and Manet. Two men in police uniforms turned up at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum claiming to be responding to a disturbance. Once let in, guards were handcuffed and locked in a cellar while the thieves went to work. Attempts to recover the paintings - for a $5 million reward - failed.
The most audacious art theft of all time, Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee of the Lourve, walked out of work one day with the Mona Lisa under his coat. The theft remained undiscovered for most of the next day, as workers thought it was being photographed. Peruggia believed the Italian painting should be in Italy, and two years later tried to sell it to the Uffizi in Florence. IMAGE: PA
The Scream is one of the most stolen paintings of all time, made worse because there are four different versions. Most recently, it was stolen from the Munch museum in Oslo, where it was uninsured because curators felt the painting was 'priceless'. There were no demands for ransom but the painting was recovered 2 years later. IMAGE: PA