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Henri Matisse painting recovered in FBI sting

20th July 2012

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has recovered a genuine Henri Matisse painting that was originally stolen from a Venezuelan museum a decade ago in a spectacular sting operation in Miami.

Having established that Matisse's Odalisque a la Culotte Rouge (Odalisque in Red Pants) was being touted on the black market, undercover agents at the FBI managed to convince the "owners" of the stolen work of art that they were keen collectors who were very interested in getting their hands on the painting.

The authorities arranged to meet Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo at a hotel in the American city. In exchange for the Matisse work of art, which was painted in 1925, the duo was demanding $740,000 (approximately 472,680). The actual value of the painting is $3 million (£1.9 million).

They were promptly arrested and charged with possession of stolen goods. The pair could face ten years behind bars if found guilty. It is still unknown if they committed the original theft, in what is a fascinating story.

For approximately a year, a forged version of the painting, which shows a bare-chested woman in red pants sitting on her knees in a relaxed manner, sat at the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art – known back then as the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum – without anyone any wiser.

This only came to light in 2003, when Genaro Ambrosino, an art collector, alerted the museum that he had been offered the painting. He knew that something wasn't quite right about the situation. On hearing this, Rita Salvestrini, the museum's director, responded, as one would, that it was impossible and he must have been mistaken: the painting certainly wasn't up for sale.

Naturally, after such a claim, it made sense, for good measure, to examine Matisse's painting hanging on the wall in the gallery. To the great shock of Ms Salvestrini and her colleagues, they could now see that something was indeed amiss. They promptly called in experts, who confirmed that the museum was in possession of a fake.

In the bogus version, there is a shadow behind the woman, which is not present in the original. In addition to that, a seemingly innocuous green stripe, a minute detail to all intents, was missing from the lower right corner. They had been well and truly duped.

The successful recovery of the Matisse painting, which the Venezuelan government is looking to repatriate, is a rare event as most stolen artworks, historically speaking, are simply lost to the world.

According to the Art Loss Register there are around 350,000 stolen works of art that are lost, in circulation or simply gathering dust around the world. Speaking to ABC News earlier this year,Chris Marinello, general counsel for the Art Loss Register, explained how a pattern emerges with art thieves who get desperate.

This begins when they realise they are going to be unable to sell the work at an auction or get a ransom fee. So their only option is to head to the black market, where art tends to sell, as we saw in the case of Matisse, at a considerably lower value.

Some of the world's most wanted paintings include Johannes Vermeer's The Concert, considered the most expensive stolen work of art (£127.4 million); Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee; Paul Cezanne's View of Auvers-sur-Oise and Vincent Van Gogh's very famous Poppy Flowers.
 

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