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Painting seized in Miami sting may be missing Matisse valued at $3 million

The original Matisse, left, alongside the fake version, in the MACCSI, Venezuela on Jan. 30, 2003.

MIAMI: A painting believed to be by French master Henri Matisse that was stolen from a Venezuelan museum more than a decade ago has been recovered in an undercover sting operation at a Miami Beach hotel, authorities said Wednesday.

A man and a woman who allegedly tried to sell the 1925 work “Odalisque in Red Pants” (Odalisque a la culotte rouge) to FBI agents for $740,000 were arrested and charged with possession of stolen goods.

Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, 46, of Miami, Florida, and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo, 50, of Mexico City, appeared in court in Miami. If found guilty, they could face up to 10 years in prison.

Marcuello negotiated the sale of the painting, which was stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art, according to a Department of Justice press release.

The said painting, a harem scene depicting a bare-chested woman in bright red pants seated on the floor with legs crossed, is valued at approximately $3 million.

“Marcuello allegedly admitted to the undercover agents during a meeting that he knew the painting was stolen,” the statement said, “and offered to sell the stolen painting for approximately $740,000.”

Marcuello then arranged for the painting to be flown from Mexico by a courier identified as Ornelas.

According to the affidavit, Ornelas arrived from Mexico Monday carrying a red tube containing the painting. The next day Marcuello and Ornelas met with undercover agents and produced the Matisse.

“Upon inspection by the undercover agents,” the Department of Justice statement continued, “the painting appeared consistent with the original Henri Matisse painting reported stolen from the MACCSI museum.”

In 2003, officials at the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art – then called the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum – announced that the painting had been stolen and replaced with a forgery.

It discovered the theft after the museum was reportedly contacted by an art collector who heard it was being offered for sale in New York.

When experts inspected the work hanging in the museum they noticed subtle differences from the original. The fake had a noticeable shadow behind the dancer, which does not appear in the original. There was also a green stripe missing in the forgery in the lower right corner.

The Sofia Imber museum purchased the “Odalisque in Red Pants” from the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1981 for $400,000.

Art and cultural property crime costs as much as $6 billion annually, according to FBI’s Art Crime Team website.

Matisse, who is considered one of the painters to revolutionize the art scene in the first half of the 20th century alongside Pablo Picasso, is a popular target of art thieves with scores of his works reported missing.

The FBI’s National Stolen Art File database lists five other missing Matisse works including a collection of 62 sketches.

His 1905 work “Luxembourg Gardens” was stolen from a museum in Rio de Janeiro during the 2006 Carnival, along with paintings by Picasso, Dali and Monet.

Thieves also stole one of Matisse’s compositions along with four other paintings, including another by Picasso, from a Paris museum in 2010.

Matisse’s works are highly sought after at auction. A floral work, “L’Odalisque, Harmonie Bleue,” sold for $33.6 million at Christie’s in 2007, while another floral piece, “Les Pivoines,” sold for $19 million at Christie’s in New York in May this year.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 20, 2012, on page 16.

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