Painting seized in Miami sting may be missing Matisse

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 18, 2012 7:02 PM
Painting seized in Miami sting may be missing Matisse

By David Adams

MIAMI (Reuters) - 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 on Wednesday.

A man and a woman who allegedly tried to sell the 1925 work "Odalisque in Red Pants" (Odalisque à 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 and could face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

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 painting, a harem scene depicting a barechested woman seated on the floor with legs crossed in bright red pants, 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," the statement said.

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 on 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 painting appeared consistent with the original Henri Matisse painting reported stolen from the MACCSI museum," the statement said.

In 2003, officials at the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art, at the time named 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 between the original and the forgery.

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 painting from the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1981 for $400,000.

(Editing by Christopher Wilson)