FBI seizes Matisse masterpiece replaced by a fake

  • @guyadams

A painting by Henri Matisse, which was mysteriously stolen from a Venezuelan gallery around 10 years ago, has been seized in Miami, after what the FBI described as a successful undercover "sting" operation.

The 1925 masterpiece Odalisque à la culotte rouge (Odalisque in red trousers) was offered for sale to agents posing as collectors. The sellers – Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman of Miami and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo from Mexico City – were arrested and charged with possession of stolen goods. The agents had agreed to pay $740,000 (£472,000) during negotiations with the pair. The painting had been reported missing in 2003, after the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum in Caracas realised that the version on their wall was an imperfect forgery. No one yet knows exactly how or when the switch took place, or why the museum didn't immediately detect the forgery.

There has been speculation that the theft occurred during a loan to a Spanish gallery in 1997, though other evidence suggests that it took place in Caracas in 2000. Either way, the work was eventually offered for sale to undercover FBI agents earlier this year. It was seized during a handover at Loews, an upscale hotel on Miami Beach, on Tuesday. "Marcuello allegedly admitted to the undercover agents during a [previous] meeting that he knew the painting was stolen," the FBI's statement said.

He and his accomplice face up to 10 years in prison, if convicted.