Monday, September 24, 2012

How Investigators Recovered A Stolen Matisse

In 1981, the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum in Venezuela bought an original painting by Henry Matisse for $400,000 from a New York art gallery. The painting, called 'Odalisque in Red Pants', was painted in 1925 and was one of the jewels of their collection. However in 2003, the museum discovered that the Matisse painting hanging from their walls was a fake: at some point a thief had switched the original painting on their wall with a forgery and  then stole the original.
Rita Salvestrini the director of the art museum stated that the switch must have been carried out by an insider. Her argument behind this was that the way the museum was monitored it meant that a switch could not have been carried out very easily. The painting was identified as a fake when differences were noticed. The forgery had a shadow painted behind the woman whilst the original did not. Also the number of green stripes painted beneath the woman in the original was one more than in the fake.
The problem was that the museum did not have any idea of when the painting had been swapped. Although there was a chance that Salvestrini was right and the switch was made by an insider at the Sofia Imber Museum, it was eventually believed to be more likely that the painting was swapped whilst it was on tour in several other museums. In 2003, when it was revealed that the painting was stolen, speculation about exactly when and where the swap had occurred began to circulate.
Before the painting was discovered to be a fake, there had been rumours that the painting was available to purchase - but not from the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum . Many galleries that had been offered the painting had ignored offers as they knew that the 'Odalisque in Red Pants' was in Venezuela and had no reason to believe the painting they were offered was real.

Once the painting was reported to be stolen, investigators began working on trying to find out where the missing painting was. On 17h of July FBI investigators recovered the painting over a decade after it was discovered to be missing. They recovered the painting by posing as art collectors wishing to buy the painting. Although the painting is valued at $3 million they tried to purchase it for $740,000. It is unknown whether the two people that were arrested, Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo, made the switch or whether they bought the painting from the original thief at a later date.

This isn't the only time investigators have recovered stolen paintings by well known painters and there are still many stolen paintings that investigators are trying to recover.


This is a guest post by Frank Adams. Occasional guest blogger on asset investigation and full time on line privacy.  Frank currently represents Beacon Investigation Solutions a private investigation company licensed in 45 states across the US.