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Chavez, Matisse, and the Heist That Shook the Americas

A decade after it was reported stolen, Odalisque in Red Pants was recovered by the FBI in Miami Beach.
A decade after it was reported stolen, Odalisque in Red Pants was recovered by the FBI in Miami Beach.
U.S. Department of Justice

In the dark of the hotel room, the ultraviolet lamp ignited like Promethean fire. A middle-aged American with gray hair leaned low over the bed, his gaunt face glowing in the purple light. Beneath him lay a weathered canvas, its edges cracked and crumbling. The man inhaled deeply. Then, with gloved hands, he slowly swept the lamp along the painting's smooth surface.

A pair of crimson pants legs sprang from the shadows. The man moved the lamp a few inches more and a woman's belly gleamed soft and white. Her bare breasts were full and pink, her mouth small and puckered like a wilted rose. At last, the man shone the light into her eyes: dark, inscrutable orbs peering out from the canvas for the first time in a decade.

"It's real," the American said, standing up and shutting off the lamp.

"¡Felicidades!" a Mexican woman shouted, springing from a chair and embracing him.

The American's young assistant -- a pretty woman in pearls and a pale-green blouse -- pulled open the curtains, and light poured into the hotel room. Outside, South Beach was suffering through another scorcher during the summer of 2012. Inside, however, it was a celebration. After a year of furtive meetings and coded phone conversations, it was finally time to make a deal.

Photos were snapped and a call was made to arrange the agreed-upon $750,000 wire transfer.

A heavyset Cuban man with a black guayabera and a salt-and-pepper buzzcut stood near the window. He had been nervously pacing all morning. Now that the deal was done, he began to flirt with the pretty American in pearls. "Now I make love to her," he said in broken English, gesturing to the nude painting.

"No!" she giggled. "Don't you dare do anything to La Gorda." Then she picked up the phone to order champagne.

When the bubbly arrived, the assistant answered the door. Then she peeled back the foil and unwound the muselet. Just as she was about to open the bottle, however, her American counterpart interjected. "I don't want the cork popped," he said.

"¿Que ha dicho?" the Mexican woman asked. "What did he say?"

Suddenly, the hotel room door flew back on its hinges.

"Police! Put your hands up!" screamed three men with bulletproof vests and guns raised.

"Noooo," the Mexican woman moaned, more in disbelief than defiance, as the cops slapped handcuffs on her slender wrists. The once-jovial Cuban said nothing. He simply glared at the undercover agent in pearls as police dragged him away.


Ten years earlier, in November 2002, Genaro Ambrosino was packing paintings to ship overseas when the door to his North Miami gallery swung open. In strode a handsome Frenchman with shoulder-length hair and well-tailored clothes. He quietly asked Ambrosino for help. "Genaro, I know you're from Venezuela, so I wanted to ask you if you know a collector," whispered Emmanuel Javogue. "They are offering me a Matisse."

"A Matisse?" Ambrosino scoffed. "The only Matisse in Latin America is in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas."

Ambrosino grabbed the museum catalog off the shelf. The portly Venezuelan knew its pages by heart, and in an instant, there she was, with her pale belly, pink breasts, and enigmatic expression: Henri Matisse's Odalisque in Red Pants.

"Is this the painting that you are being offered?" Ambrosino asked. Javogue nodded. "Well, I'd stay the hell away from it because it's either fake or stolen."

As soon as Javogue left, Ambrosino picked up the phone. Something was very wrong. Without realizing it, he would set in motion a decadelong search for the $4 million masterpiece. Investigators would scour five countries on three continents for the painting, until it finally reappeared in the South Beach hotel room.

Odalisque in Red Pants is one of the most famous and expensive artworks ever to be stolen in the Americas. But the case is about more than a pretty canvas. It's about Miami's rise as a black-market boom town, where middlemen with false identities use fake documents to hawk forged paintings. It's also about the glamour and greed of the modern art world, in which beautiful women, bogus buyers, and bugged hotel rooms blend like brushstrokes.

Above all, however, it's about Venezuela's descent into chaos under Hugo Chávez.

"My country was once the arts capital of Latin America," Ambrosino says with a sigh. "Now there is no law."

Like many Venezuelans, Ambrosino's parents fled to Venezuela from Europe in the wake of World War II. His father was a diesel engine expert from a fishing village near Naples. There was no future for him in Italy. In Venezuela, however, a new oil rig was being erected every day.

Ambrosino's mother also arrived in search of something, but instead of a job, she was looking for her brother. He had moved to Venezuela in 1952. When his letters suddenly stopped arriving in Italy in 1956, his family worried so much they followed him to South America. They found him alive and well -- if covered in grease -- inside a Fiat garage in Caracas.

The Venezuelan capital was changing at a dizzying pace. Oil from the Orinoco River basin fueled a construction boom, and by 1961 the city's population had quadrupled to almost a million. It was awash in oil money. And many immigrants, still wary of the worthless bills they had left behind in Europe, quickly realized the safest investment was art.

"When someone got married and got an apartment, the first thing they bought was their bed. The second thing was the couch. And the third thing was a painting for over the couch," Ambrosino remembers. "You wouldn't conceive of having a home without paintings."

 

Miami gallerist Genaro Ambrosino was the one to sound the alarm over the stolen painting.
Miami gallerist Genaro Ambrosino was the one to sound the alarm over the stolen painting.
Photo by Marta Xochilt Perez

Genaro grew up in a gallery. When his painter uncle Ferdinando visited Venezuela and sold his entire exhibition in one day, Genaro's father decided to diversify from the diesel engine business. He bought a two-story house in the upscale neighborhood of Altamira in 1975 and covered the downstairs with heavy curtains, shag carpeting, and easels. The gallery soon became a success.

Petrodollars were being pumped into not only private galleries but also public institutions. Around the time the Ambrosinos' gallery opened, so too did the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas. The new museum was the pet project of one of the country's most prominent television personalities: a brilliant woman named Sofía Imber.

Imber had arrived in Venezuela in 1930 when she was 6 after fleeing the Russian Revolution. Once wealthy Jewish farmers, her relatives had been chased to a refugee camp. But Sofía was driven. At a young age, she became a journalist and married Guillermo Meneses, one of the country's greatest writers. When Meneses was given a diplomatic posting in France, Sofía befriended Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger. She wrote columns for newspapers back in Venezuela and scoured Parisian galleries for art to stock the modernist buildings springing up in Caracas.

Imber oversaw the construction of her museum, unashamedly named El Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas-Sofía Imber.

By the time Imber returned to her adopted country in 1960, she was one of its leading cultural critics. After Imber and Meneses divorced, she married another famous writer, Carlos Rangel. Together, the couple hosted the popular political talk show Buenos Días.

"In the art world, she was a goddess," Ambrosino remembers. "She was a little bit like the Oprah of Venezuela. Politicians could avoid any interviewer, but nobody could avoid her. She could call the president and say, 'I want you to be on my program tomorrow for an interview,' and the president would go."

In 1974, she used that clout to persuade President Rafael Caldera to give her 7,000 square feet in a new downtown cultural district called Parque Central. There, Imber oversaw the construction of her museum, unashamedly named El Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Caracas-Sofía Imber.

At first, the museum was little more than a gallery, but it was cutting-edge. Visitors to its inaugural exhibition were greeted by strange, gritty sculptures of indigenous Venezuelans by Dutch sculptor Cornelis Zitman.

"I remember there was a piece that was a whole room that [Lucio] Fontana had built with a big slash in it," Ambrosino says. "You had to remove your shoes because the floor was white, everything was white -- you felt like you were floating in this space. It left me breathless."

The museum soon became the best in Venezuela and eventually in all of Latin America. Bit by bit, Imber begged and borrowed enough cash to buy important pieces. When a complete copy of the Suite Vollard -- Picasso's raunchy neoclassical sketches -- became available, Imber took a local governor to lunch to ask him for money. "When can I stay in the suite?" the clueless politician asked. But Imber got her money and her Picassos.

Her most important acquisition, however, was a small oil painting titled Odalisque in Red Pants. Like many of Matisse's works, it was wildly colorful, with the topless woman's blood-red slacks exploding against a green-and-yellow background.

"The spectator who makes it as far as the last turn in the museum finds himself astonished," critic José Pulido wrote. "The small painting seems lit from the inside... The spectator understands immediately what is going on: She is waiting for Matisse to return and illuminating the way for him with her tits of light."

Best of all, the painting was cheap. Bought for just $480,000 from a gallery in New York in 1981, it was the only Matisse on display in all of Latin America.

But even as Imber was assembling her museum, the country was coming apart. On February 18, 1983 -- a day known as Venezuela's Viernes Negro, or "Black Friday" -- the national currency was drastically devalued. Food prices soared.

Six years later, Ambrosino, who had followed his parents into the art business, was at the family's vacation house on Isla Margarita when riots broke out in the capital over President Carlos Andrés Pérez's economic shock policies. Pérez suspended the constitution and ordered police and soldiers onto the streets. Hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of protesters were killed in what is now called the "Caracazo."

A few months later, Ambrosino and his parents attended the first Art Miami fair. When everything sold within hours, his parents began plotting a gallery in Miami. Ambrosino was the only one who spoke English, however, and in 1991 he traded Caracas' turmoil for Miami's club scene. Celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone, Madonna, and Gianni Versace regularly stopped by his Coral Gables spot.

Venezuela, meanwhile, continued disintegrating. In 1992, a young lieutenant colonel named Hugo Chávez led a failed coup against Pérez. Six years later, Chávez won the presidency in a landslide. His election was historic. But the Bolivarian Revolution, as he called it, came in phases. First he first reformed the constitution; then, in 2000, he called for national elections. By 2001, the political revolution was well underway. The cultural revolution, however, was only beginning.


"I would like to announce the following changes to the bullpen," Hugo Chávez boomed in his boisterous baritone. "Not only in the bullpen, but on the mound, in center field, changes in right field, changes at first base." This wasn't baseball, however, but his weekly television program, Aló Presidente. "There needs to be a complete change. The time to begin the cultural revolution has arrived.

 

Sofia Imber, left, and her daughter Adriana Meneses in their family's art-filled condo in Aventura.
Sofia Imber, left, and her daughter Adriana Meneses in their family's art-filled condo in Aventura.
Photo by Michael E. Miller

"Culture has become elitist as a result of being managed by elites! Princes, kings, heirs, families took over institutions, institutions that have cost the state millions and millions!... No! That's not how it is. The Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas is changing leadership. The new president of such an important museum will be Rita Salvestrini."

"I think this museum is not to their liking because they only want art that is nationalistic and patriotic."

And with that, Sofía Imber was thrown out of her own museum.

The January 21, 2001 purge was unprecedented. More than two dozen of the country's leading cultural figures were fired on live television. It was an early sign of the strife that would consume Venezuela a year later, when Chávez himself would be forced from power at gunpoint and national treasures would begin to go missing.

Imber hadn't hidden her opposition to Chávez and his socialist policies. Now that she had been fired, she didn't hesitate to voice her anger. "I think this museum is not to their liking because they only want art that is nationalistic and patriotic," she said.

"It was horrible," Adriana Meneses says of her mother's public humiliation. "She knew it was coming, but not like that. It was supposed to be done in an elegant way. After 30 years, she only wanted a little bit of respect."

Respect, however, was becoming increasingly rare in the new Venezuela. When Chávez tried to wrest control of the national petroleum company from his opposition, oil workers went on strike, plummeting the country into crisis. On April 11, 2002, the opposition launched a coup against Chávez. The president was forced from Miraflores at gunpoint and flown to an island offshore, only to triumphantly return to power two days later.

Deadly street demonstrations were still raging November 28, 2002, when Emmanuel Javogue walked into Genaro Ambrosino's North Miami art gallery and said he had been offered Odalisque in Red Pants.

Ambrosino twice phoned the museum and asked for Salvestrini, but a receptionist said she was unavailable. He sent Salvestrini an email but received no reply.

Finally, Ambrosino typed another email recounting Javogue's visit. "If it hadn't happened to me, I wouldn't have believed it," he wrote. "Does anyone in Venezuela know if 'the museum' is selling the national patrimony that Sofía collected for all Venezuelans?"

Ambrosino addressed the email to more than a hundred of the most important artists, gallery owners, and journalists in Venezuela. Then he pressed send.

Soon his inbox was flooded with hate mail. One message was from Salvestrini, who called the gallerist a "worm." Other emails were threatening. "Don't forget your parents still live here," one warned.

Art Basel began a few days later, and outraged Venezuelans flocked to Ambrosino's booth. "They were very skeptical," he remembers. "Most of them said, 'You must be wrong. It's not possible.' " He also received a phone call from Yasmín Monsalve, a reporter for the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.

"Listen, what I'm saying is absolutely true," he told her. "Someone is trying to sell the Odalisque."

On December 15, El Nacional published Monsalve's article about the controversy. By now, Ambrosino was a pawn in the political battle raging in Venezuela. To chavistas, he was a traitor for accusing socialists of plundering the museum. To members of the opposition, he was a hero.

A few days later, he was buying Christmas presents at the Old Navy store in Aventura when his phone rang once again. This time, it was the FBI. They had been following the news about the Odalisque. Ambrosino told the agent the painting was supposedly being held at the Fortress, a massive blue-and-white art storage facility on NE First Avenue near 17th Street in downtown Miami.

When the feds stormed the place, however, the vault was empty. Agents then reviewed video footage, which showed a woman in sunglasses and a scarf removing a rectangular package. But when they arrived at her Collins Avenue apartment, it was empty.

Real or fake, stolen or not -- the Odalisque was gone.


Rita Salvestrini tore open the museum's climate-controlled vault. At first the director had dismissed Ambrosino's email as absurd. But as she searched the cool, dim room for the painting in question, she wasn't so sure.

She found the locker labeled "Matisse." As she opened it, her eyes fell on the familiar gold frame, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She and an assistant carefully removed the painting and placed it on a restoration table, next to a badly damaged Monet. Salvestrini switched on a lamp, slipped off the covering, and leaned in closely.

"This isn't it!" she gasped. The painting wasn't just a fake; it was a travesty. The shadows and colors were all wrong, the beautiful woman reduced to a poorly drawn pinup.

"Esto no puede ser," she said to herself inside the tomb-like vault. "This can't be."

No sooner had the Odalisque been reported missing when its trail went cold. In Miami, the FBI believed the painting had been whisked out of the country. In Caracas, an official investigation had gone nowhere. Instead, the task of tracking down the national treasure fell to a young journalist whose reporting would implicate the woman who loved the Matisse most of all.

For several weeks after Salvestrini's shocked discovery, the story of the missing Odalisque was all anyone in Caracas could talk about. For many, the painting had been a symbol of the country's oil-fueled rise. Now, its disappearance seemed to confirm that Venezuela had crashed back down to the Third World.

 

Henri Matisse's 1925 painting, Odalisque in Red Pants on the right and the fake that replaced it in the museum on the right.
Henri Matisse's 1925 painting, Odalisque in Red Pants on the right and the fake that replaced it in the museum on the right.
Courtesy of the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum

Marianela Balbi had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and returned to Venezuela to cover culture for El Nacional. For the Caracas native, the missing Matisse was the story of a lifetime. "It was painful for me because I grew up in that museum," she says. "Its collection was one of the most important in the world, thanks to Sofía [Imber]."

Balbi began digging into the painting's disappearance. But the more she learned, the more her brilliant impression of Imber started to fade. She began work on a book about the heist, and one of her most important sources was Wanda de Guebriant, the world's leading Matisse expert. When Balbi visited her in Paris, the Frenchwoman laid out a troubling timeline.

De Guebriant told Balbi she had been asked by a French gallery to authenticate the Odalisque in October 2000, three months before Imber was fired from the museum. De Guebriant refused, saying it must be a fake because the real thing was in the Venezuelan museum.

But then de Guebriant showed Balbi a photo she had found online. Taken at a 2000 OPEC summit, it showed Sofía Imber and Hugo Chávez smiling side-by-side. It wasn't the chumminess of the soon-to-be enemies that caught her eye, however. It was the painting behind them: Odalisque in Red Pants. "And it's already the fake!" de Guebriant said.

Imber was fired in January 2001. Just a month later, de Guebriant was asked again to authenticate the Odalisque. Again, she refused. Then, seven months later, French art expert Michel Eyriey showed de Guebriant photos of the Odalisque along with documents supposedly authorizing the painting's sale by none other than Sofía Imber. Still, de Guebriant refused to inspect the painting, she told Balbi.

Finally, in December 2001, Eyriey picked up de Guebriant at her home in Paris and drove north. Eyriey took her to a cavernous customs warehouse where government officials confiscated her passport at the door. Inside, Eyriey led her to a small, specially reserved room. And there, on an easel in the corner, was the Odalisque.

De Guebriant was shocked. Not only was the painting obviously authentic, but the century-old canvas had also been crudely fastened to a stretcher with industrial staples. "It's the real painting, and it's a scandal," she told Eyriey, but she refused to sign anything for fear of aiding in the stolen painting's black-market sale.

When de Guebriant reached Imber a few weeks later and explained that one of her most famous pieces was secretly for sale in Paris, Imber initially acted outraged. Then she made a startling admission: Someone had recently offered to buy the painting from Imber for $1.7 million, but she had refused because it didn't belong to her.

Imber said she would alert Salvestrini and the museum, but nothing happened. "She said she was going to cause a scandal, but then she didn't move," de Guebriant tells New Times. "She didn't move a finger."

The painting was neither in Paris nor Caracas. It was being hawked in Miami by a Brazilian art dealer.

So it was that on April 20, 2002, when Imber visited the museum for the first time since her firing, the heist remained hidden. As the 78-year-old shuffled slowly along the hallways, her former employees lined up to praise her. Salvestrini, Imber's successor, stayed at the old woman's side. After strolling past Boteros and Picassos, Imber finally stopped in front of Odalisque in Red Pants.

"One day I will tell you an histoire drôle about that painting," she told Salvestrini in a shaky voice.

"About what, Sofía?" Salvestrini asked.

"I have something very serious to tell you about that artwork," Imber said. But when Salvestrini pressed for details, the old woman replied, "No, it's best if we talk about it some other time," and kept walking.

At that moment, the painting was neither in Paris nor Caracas. According to Balbi, it was being hawked in Miami by a Brazilian art dealer named Silvia Ferreira de Mannelo, AKA Sylvia de Azevedo.

"Sylvia de Azevedo was a very recognizable name among the most extreme ranks of the Venezuelan political opposition," Balbi wrote in her book The Rape of the Odalisque. "With a warrior's gate, gray hair, no makeup, and a rough voice produced by nicotine abuse, Sylvia de Azevedo was a fanatical defender of her legitimate place in the art world."

Azevedo had acquired the painting under mysterious circumstances, Balbi wrote. The art dealer received a phone call from a man claiming to be a colonel in the Venezuelan National Guard. Two days later, he showed up at Azevedo's Collins Avenue apartment with the canvas rolled up under his arm. "He said the [Venezuelan art museum] had charged him with the mission because President Hugo Chávez was very nationalistic and, according to the colonel, thought museums ought to exhibit Venezuelan values instead of collecting foreign paintings," Balbi wrote.

A day after their first meeting, the colonel returned to Azevedo's apartment with the painting stapled to a cheap pine frame and wrapped in paper. When he couldn't find the art dealer, however, he left the $4 million painting by her front door with a note promising her 10 percent of the sale price. It was Azevedo who had stored the painting in the Fortress and shopped it around to interested gallery owners, Balbi wrote. But Azevedo wasn't cautious enough. And when Genaro Ambrosino caught wind of the auction, the cat was out of the bag.

With the FBI making inquiries, Azevedo raced to the Fortress and removed the painting. Where it went from there was anyone's guess. There were rumors in Venezuela that it was sitting on an opposition politician's mantel or, even worse, had been destroyed. According to one newspaper, the Odalisque been sent back to Paris.

Wanda de Guebriant was in Paris, however, and was hearing a much different story: Like so many fugitives before her, the Odalisque was now hiding out in Mexico.


Pedro Marcuello thought nothing of the music that was playing when he climbed into the luxury car. He was focused on the driver: a beautiful young woman he had met a few months earlier for a business deal.

 

Pedro Marcuello is secretly photographed by the FBI during a March 13, 2012 meeting with an undercover agent in South Beach.
Pedro Marcuello is secretly photographed by the FBI during a March 13, 2012 meeting with an undercover agent in South Beach.

"¿Ay, cómo estás, mi amor?" Leslie Gómez asked, leaning over to give the heavyset Cuban a kiss on each cheek. Marcuello blushed. She wore a loosely knitted shirt that revealed a white tank top and tight jeans. As she guided the car along Ocean Drive, huge silver hoop earrings swung back and forth on either side of her dark Spanish eyes.

"B.I.G. P-O-P-P-A/No info for the DEA," the Notorious B.I.G. rapped on the radio. "Federal agents mad 'cause I'm flagrant /Tap my cell and the phone in the basement."

Marcuello wasn't listening to "Mo Money Mo Problems," but he was about to be living it.

Gómez pulled up to Smith & Wollensky in South Pointe Park. There, the odd couple sat at a waterside table and exchanged pleasantries. She complained that the models she worked with were driving her crazy. He talked about his two teenage kids and grumbled that his car had broken down again. Then they got down to business: the sale of a $4 million stolen painting.

Marcuello said his Mexican associate could deliver it in the summer. They discussed wiring $375,000 to Mexico and giving the same amount to Marcuello in cash.

"We have to be very careful with that," Gómez said in Spanish. "I live life a bit more -- as we say in English -- recklessly. I like money a lot. I like nice things. But I don't have a husband. I don't have a family.

"You're really nice," she continued, staring into Marcuello's eyes. "I don't want you to get in trouble."

"No, no, no," he laughed. "Look. I'm doing this."

Gómez ordered a glass of Riesling; Marcuello a double Johnny Walker Black.

"¡Salud!" she said. "A La Gorda!"

"¡Salud!" he echoed. "To the painting!"

Marcuello should have listened to Biggie, but he was blinded by beauty and greed. His lovely new friend was not a money-hungry fashionista but an FBI agent who was secretly recording their March 13, 2012 conversation. Over the next four months, she would slowly reel in Marcuello and the missing $4 million Matisse.

It took a confidential informant, an ex-girlfriend, and a motorcycle accident for the Odalisque to finally emerge.

But the clever undercover operation -- never reported in detail until now -- was no sure thing. It took a confidential informant, an ex-girlfriend, and a motorcycle accident for the Odalisque to finally emerge from a decade of hiding.

The operation began by chance in November 2011 when an FBI agent named Kiki told his handlers he had been drinking with his sister's ex-boyfriend, a bear of a man named Pedro Marcuello. The Cuban liked to play pool, but he also enjoyed brokering illicit deals. Marcuello had been arrested half a dozen times for everything from marijuana trafficking to his role in a massive identity fraud ring, yet each time the charges had been dropped. Over drinks, Marcuello told Kiki about his latest get-rich-quick scheme: selling a $4 million painting.

Marcuello said a Cuban-American friend had stolen the painting from a museum in Caracas years earlier. Marcuello put the thief in touch with a money man in Mexico named Filiberto, who then betrayed the thief and took the painting for himself.

Now Filiberto was dead -- killed in a motorcycle accident near Mexico City -- and the painting was Marcuello's retirement plan. Kiki told Marcuello he might have a buyer. A few weeks later, the two men met Leslie Gómez at the Four Seasons on Brickell Avenue. What Marcuello didn't know was that her last name wasn't Gómez and that she was working for the FBI.

The undercover agent told Kiki and Marcuello she knew a man named Ron White who lived in Portland, Oregon, and dealt in stolen art. He had a long list of clients in Asia and could be trusted to remain discreet.

Marcuello said he and his partner in Mexico wanted 20 percent of the painting's $3.7 million price tag. Gómez said she needed to ask White, but when she tried calling him, she said her reception was bad. Using Marcuello's phone, Gómez called White and asked if he remembered "that Matisse we talked about." White wanted photos, she told Marcuello.

Two weeks later, the three met at Tarpon Bend on Miracle Mile. Over a seared yellowfin tuna salad, Gómez explained White wasn't willing to travel to Mexico. "He is a gringo who doesn't understand the language," she explained in Spanish. "For him, it is too dangerous."

Not to worry, Marcuello cooed. The painting could come to Miami. A few days later, he told Gómez it would be delivered from Mexico by his partner's wife just as soon as she got her visa renewed.

On March 13, 2012, Marcuello and Gómez met at the Smith & Wollensky in South Beach. By then, they had gotten together more than a dozen times and spoken on the phone regularly. "You are rarer than beef in Cuba," he told her. He offered to be Gómez's bodyguard and then told her of a dream in which they were sailing on a boat he had bought with his share of the Odalisque money.

"When we finish with La Gorda," Gómez said, "we are going to celebrate and do all those things."

The painting would arrive in the summer, Marcuello promised.

"This is only the beginning," Gómez said. "You will see."

On July 13, four days before the deal, Marcuello and Gómez met at a Coral Gables Starbucks. They decided that when the woman from Mexico arrived with the painting, Marcuello would call Gómez and say, "The pigeon has landed."

 

Chavez, Matisse, and the Heist That Shook the Americas
U.S. Department of Justice

Three days later, the Mexican courier, María Martha Ornelas Lazo, landed in Miami. Dressed in a white shirt and mustard-yellow pants, Ornelas had the Odalisque hidden among cheap prints inside a red tube slung over her shoulder. When an immigration agent asked the purpose of her visit, she replied, "Plastic surgery."

Marcuello awaited her at baggage claim. He drove her to a hotel in Hialeah, where they stashed the painting. Then they drove to Smith & Wollensky to meet Gómez and White, the buyer.

The four ate lunch and chatted -- with Gómez translating -- for three hours. Marcuello wore a bright-red shirt because, he explained, a "santo" had told him it would bring good fortune. Ornelas, meanwhile, laughed while explaining she had stored the $4 million painting in the overhead compartment during the flight. They made plans to meet at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel the following day around noon.

When Marcuello and Ornelas arrived at 12:33 p.m., Gómez and White were in the lobby. White led them up to his room, where Ornelas wasted no time handing over the red tube. White donned a pair of gloves and carefully removed the cluster of prints. Underneath a painting of a naked woman on a rhinoceros lay what he was looking for: the Odalisque in Red Pants.

As White spread the painting on the bed, two hidden cameras filmed the whole thing. He pulled the curtains shut and turned on his ultraviolet lamp. After ten minutes of near silence, he announced the painting was legit.

Celebration followed. Ornelas explained the painting had been shopped in Mexico and twice in Spain. Each time, however, the deal had fallen through and the Odalisque remained on the wall of the Acapulco apartment she shared with her husband, Shura de León, the son of a high-ranking Cuban official.

"This isn't a picture to be showing around," Marcuello explained, joined his hands as if in cuffs. "Everyone goes to jail."

Ornelas called her husband to arrange the wire transfer, and Gómez ordered two bottles of champagne.

Marcuello pulled the FBI agent close. "¿Sabes que?" he said. "I'm going to paint you, and in a few years it will be worth some money."

He would never have the chance. Moments later, police raided the hotel room and placed Marcuello and Ornelas under arrest.

Interviewed an hour later in the FBI's North Miami offices, Marcuello was full of admiration for the nine-month undercover operation and its female agent.

"You did an excellent job," he told his interviewer in flawless English. "A perfect job."


On August 7, hundreds of reporters packed into a Caracas conference room to witness the Odalisque's triumphant return. First, security guards in silver and black suits wheeled a heavy package onto a stage. Then a man and a woman in surgical masks and latex gloves opened the ominous-looking cardboard box. They stripped off one protective layer after another until, finally, they were able to tilt the box just enough that the cameramen could catch sight of the painting inside.

"There you have it," said an announcer for the state-run television station. "A beautiful painting that shows the female figure in all of its splendor." The room broke into applause. For Venezuela, a country that remains bitterly divided a year and a half after the death of Hugo Chávez, it was a rare moment of unity.

It didn't last. Moments later, chavista officials used the homecoming as an opportunity to praise the government and bash the opposition. "Today we are celebrating the arrival of the Odalisque as a sign of the interest, commitment, and sensitivity of the Bolivarian government for culture and the arts," Cultural Minister Fidel Barbarito announced. "This is a beloved artwork that now, thanks to the revolution, belongs to all Venezuelans. Whereas years ago, before the revolution, only a few, tiny minorities had the right to enjoy and access the arts."

A week later, the Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas hung the real Matisse next to its imitation. But Venezuela has yet to hold anyone accountable for the crime -- leading many to wonder who, exactly, got away with the steal of the century.

"Not a single person has been arrested in Venezuela," says Balbi, noting that Sylvia de Azevedo lives in Venezuela yet has never been called in for questioning. (In interviews, Azevedo has acknowledged her role but denied knowing the painting was stolen. She did not respond for New Times' request for comment.)

"The imprisonment of the two people is an accomplishment for the American court system, not for the Venezuelan government, which in 12 years has shown no initiative or interest in recovering the painting," Balbi says.

If she's planning a book sequel, Balbi won't get any help from the pair convicted of the crime. María Ornelas pleaded guilty to fraud and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. She was released in January and immediately deported to Mexico. Her American attorney, Joe Nascimento, says Ornelas was used by Shura de León and Marcuello. Nascimento says León lied to her about the amount of money he stood to gain in the deal and planned to leave her afterward. Ornelas did not respond to requests for comment.

Neither did Marcuello. He is locked up in a correctional institution in Folkston, Georgia. Like Ornelas, he pleaded guilty and will be released in December. Unlike Ornelas, and despite his admiration for the FBI operation that ensnared him, he has refused to cooperate.

"I imagine he's the person who knows what really happened," says Marcuello's lawyer, Alfredo Izaguirre. "But he's not talking.

"Marcuello was in it for the money," Izaguirre adds, "but he believed that [Gómez] really liked him."

"I honestly think he fell in love with her," Nascimento says.

Genaro Ambrosino, the gallerist whose email "stirred up the shit," as he says, doubts the two convicts know much anyway. "They are probably the tenth generation of people that tried to sell the painting, and they were probably the stupidest ones, because they got caught."

But that begs the question: Who was really responsible for one of the greatest art thefts in the history of the Americas?

"I don't think Sofía personally stole the painting," says Rita Salvestrini, the woman who was widely -- and wrongly -- blamed for the Odalisque's disappearance. "But I think that if she had reported the theft right away, none of this would have happened.

"We will never know what really happened because there has been a collective silence about the whole thing," Salvestrini adds, "and Sofía has been the most silent of them all."

In a condo high above Aventura, Sofía Imber finally breaks her silence. At 90 years old, the fierce woman who escaped the Bolsheviks, founded her own museum, and battled Hugo Chávez is now a shriveled version of herself, but her intellect is still there. Asked about the Odalisque, she immediately rattles off the year she bought it and its price.

Does she plan to visit the Odalisque now that it has finally returned?

"If the museum had prospered, had grown, had bought artwork, I would love to go back and see what I began, as something small had been made into something big," she says. "But to see how they've destroyed what I created? No. No, thanks."

Asked about the art heist, she says it would be "ridiculous" for her to have tried to sell it secretly and insists she remained silent after realizing it was stolen because she didn't want to create problems for her successor, Salvestrini. "Seeing as I'm not a police officer, I don't have the faintest clue what happened to the painting."

She tilts her head toward the window. In the distance, the beach shines pink and white in the morning light, like the skin of the Odalisque.

"All pieces of art that are stolen from a museum are painful, but that one especially so," Imber says. "I would very much like to see it again."




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