On July 16, a plane from Mexico City landed in Miami Airport. One of the passengers was a woman holding a bright-red tube that contained a rolled canvas of Henri Matisse. She left the airport for what would turn out to be a meeting with the law.
A few days later news emerged that an FBI operation in Florida had successfully retrieved a painting by Henri Matisse that had been stolen from a Venezuelan Art Museum in 2002. The hunt took almost ten years, and only last week two suspects were arrested when trying to sell the “Odalisque In Red Pants”.
Undercover FBI agents arrested Miami resident Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, 46, and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo, 50, of Mexico City when they were trying to sell the painting. The dealers did not even conceal the fact that the canvas had been stolen, thus explaining their incredibly low asking price. Despite the fact that Matisse’s painting was estimated at $3 million, they were ready to sell it for only $740,000. Now, the unfortunate black market art dealers are facing long-term prison sentences.
One would think that the crime had been solved, and that the investigators can head home job well done – but things are not that simple. The history of the theft of the painting is, in fact, rather complex. The “Odalisque In Red Pants” painted by Henri Matisse in 1925 was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in Caracas in 1981 from a New York gallery for half a million dollars.
The picture was long considered one of the gems of the museum’s collection, but in 2003 information appeared that the “Odalisque” was for sale on the black market. After a close examination it turned out that the painting in the museum’s collection was a forgery. Obviously, unidentified criminals had stolen the original painting replacing it with a fake so skillfully made that museum specialists had not been aware of the swap for quite a long time. The investigators failed to establish the exact time of the crime, but it was most likely committed in 2002.
Now a comprehensive examination is needed in order to figure out whether the picture obtained in the FBI operation is the original stolen from Caracas, or if it is yet another high-quality forgery.
The search for stolen art objects often takes many years, and it is not only the robbed owners that become victims in such situations, but also the new owners of the paintings. For example, not so long ago, Niko Pirosmani’s painting the “Black Lion”, stolen back in 1993 from the house of the former rector of the Georgian Academy of Arts Apollon Kutateladze, was discovered in Moscow. A major scandal broke out, but it turned out that the painting was legally purchased at an auction. After the new owner of the paintings became aware of its criminal past, he went to Tbilisi and re-bought the picture, which is considered to be one of the best works by Pirosmani, from the family of the artist Apollon Kutateladze.