Mystery of the fake Matisse masterpiece leads to jail time

Matisse's 'Odalisque in Red Pants' was switched for a fake at a Caracas museum, then recovered in an FBI sting at a Miami Beach hotel. Two conspirators were sentenced this week.

Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum/AP/ File
The original painting by Henri Matisse titled, 'Odalisque in Red Pants' (l.), shown here next to a fake version that was on display in the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas, Venezuela. A federal judge in Miami on Jan. 22 sentenced a Cuban and Mexican 33 and 21 months in prison, respectively, for trying to sell the painting.

Nearly a decade after being lifted from a Venezuelan museum, a painting by French master Henri Matisse is heading home while the two individuals who tried to sell the $2 million art work on the black market are heading to prison.

The missing painting, “Odalisque in Red Pants,” has been at the center of a deepening mystery since December 2002 when officials at the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art discovered that someone had switched their genuine Matisse for a fake.

It is unclear precisely when the switch took place. And no one has ever been charged or arrested for the theft.

Rumors occasionally circulated in the art world that someone wanted to sell the painting, but potential buyers dismissed the reports, assuming the offered work was a fake.

Then, in the fall of 2011, a Miami man put word out that “Odalisque in Red Pants” was for sale, according to court documents.

By December, Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman had begun serious negotiations with individuals he believed were unscrupulous art collectors anxious to purchase stolen masterpieces at black-market prices.

After assuring the potential customers that the painting had been assessed at over $3 million, he agreed to sell the work for $740,000.

As part of the deal, Mr. Marcuello would receive $555,000 in cash, with the rest of the money to be wired into a Mexico City bank account prior to transfer of the painting.

But first the buyers wanted to see the painting and verify its authenticity.

That’s where Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo entered the picture. In July, she rolled the Matisse up with another painting, inserted it into a red tube, and hand carried it onto a flight from Mexico City to Miami.

What neither Ms. Ornelas nor Marcuello knew was that the would-be art collectors were in fact undercover agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The final transaction was set to take place in a Miami Beach hotel. The “art collectors' ” hotel room was equipped with both video and audio recording devices. The entire transaction was captured on tape.

According to court documents, during the meeting Ornelas told the “art collectors” that she had researched the history of the stolen painting on the Internet after the painting arrived at her home in Mexico several years ago. She told the undercover agents that employees at the Caracas museum had switched a fake painting for the real Matisse.

She added that efforts to sell the masterpiece had been unsuccessful.

After verifying the authenticity of the painting, Marcuello and Ornelas were placed under arrest. Both eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to transport stolen property.

On Tuesday, a federal judge sentenced Marcuello to two years and nine months in federal custody. Co-conspirator Ornelas of Mexico City received a sentence of one year and nine months.

“Odalisque in Red Pants” is a portrayal of a partially nude harem slave girl painted by Matisse in 1925 in Nice. He is said to have used a French model and recreated the oriental scene in his apartment. 

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