High-Class Heists

Amanda Moran's eyes widened as she walked from a blinding July afternoon into the cool living room of a red-roofed house just off South Dixie Highway in Coconut Grove. Piled like cheap toys in this ordinary suburban house, some tightly wrapped in Ecuadorian newspaper, were more than 160 pieces from the most incredible collection of pre-Columbian artifacts ever smuggled into the United States. On one table sat a squat clay vase with a dusty-looking handle. On a couch lay a glinting Mayan breastplate. On the coffee table stood a four-inch-tall figurine used by shamans in the Andes 6,000 years ago to cast out evil spirits.

Then Edgar Nakache, Moran's 49-year-old host, gave her the sales pitch. "We're upping the price to $5 million for the whole set," he said.

A few seconds later, a team of FBI agents swooped into the living room and cuffed Nakache as well as his cohorts, 71-year-old Cecilia Marcillo-Aviles and her daughter, Susan Aviles, 46.

Moran, you see, is an undercover agent. The priceless antiquities had been stolen from Ecuador and brazenly smuggled through customs at Miami International Airport. The raid, which took place in July 2006, was the largest bust ever of looted pre-Columbian items, according to the FBI. But it was far from an extraordinary event in South Florida, a global center in the international art crime circuit — an enterprise that accounts for more than $6 billion a year, more than the cross-border trade of diamonds, sex, or hot cars.

With Art Basel, one of the world's largest art fairs, opening this week, organizers are stepping up security and warning everyone to hang on to their Picassos — and to make very, very sure that that Warhol is the real deal before slapping down six figures in cash.

"The value of art has skyrocketed in the last 20 years, which is what makes it such a rife situation for fraud, forgery, and theft," says former FBI agent Robert Witt­man, who was with Moran that day in Coconut Grove but recently retired after 18 years working undercover in art crime stings for the FBI. "Where else in the world can you find something the size of a post card with paint on it worth $5 million?"

In 2004, when the FBI trained a special 13-agent Art Crime Team to help fight the rising tide of international art theft, leaders chose Miami, along with a handful of other major cities, as a base. The number of high-profile busts in South Florida just in the past few months makes clear they knew what they were talking about.

• In June, the FBI arrested Bernard Ternus, a 55-year-old Frenchman who had been living in Cooper City. The previous August, Ternus and four others stormed into the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice, France, and walked out with four paintings by Monet, Sisley, and Brueghel worth more than $4 million. Ternus flew into MIA with the paintings in his luggage and then tried, but failed, to fence them.

• In September, Miami police caught up with Marcos Patmon, a charming, seemingly educated Washington, D.C., transplant with a penchant for breaking windows and palming Picassos. Patmon, 37, took a half-mil worth of the Spanish modernist's etchings from Gallery Biba in Palm Beach and is suspected of similar thefts from galleries in D.C. and Boca Raton.

• Later that same month, Coral Springs art dealer and Salvador Dali expert Jerry Bengis had his first day in court after he was caught in a massive FBI Art Crime Team raid on a national forgery ring. The feds have accused 61-year-old Bengis of taking more than $50,000 for counterfeit Chagalls, Lichtensteins, and Picassos at his Bengis Fine Art Gallery and picking up more than $23,000 for knowingly appraising fake art for other dealers.

• In late November, the feds busted Giuseppe Concepcion, a New Yorker who ran a gallery called Proarte in Miami. Concepcion, the FBI says, bought works by masters including Henri Matisse and Alexander Calder, commissioned fakes, and sold them as the real deal. One duped customer in Connecticut handed over $180,000 and his 2004 Bentley for a sham 1969 Calder oil painting, according to Concepcion's indictment.

"The art world is very unregulated, and a lot of deals get done by handshakes and by the dealer's word," says Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, Langley-based manager of the FBI's art theft program. "That kind of environment makes it possible for a lot of these crimes to take place."

Art Basel's organizers intend to make life more difficult for the hustlers and thieves. For the sixth year in a row, experts from the Art Loss Register, the world's largest art theft monitoring service, will cross-check every piece sold at the fair against their company's registry of 200,000 lost and stolen paintings. Some of the listings date back to World War II.

Still, they can't track forgeries — a prime market at fairs like Basel that include works by easy-to-copy masters such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Dali.

"You've got to do serious research before you buy anything," says Laurel Waycott, operations manager of the company's New York office. "If it's a Picasso or a Warhol, there's a system already set up out there to screen the provenance and check the documentation."

For legit dealers in South Florida, the never-ending spark of criminal activity is a frustrating reality of operating in a city new to the high-stakes world of fine art. "It's an enormous problem as a gallery owner in Miami, especially with all the Cuban art coming in," says Gary Nader, who owns a gallery in Wynwood. "There's a lot of money in this market and not a lot of expertise. The public is very new to art buying, so responsibility falls on the dealers."

Nader sighs, "And, unfortunately, most of the dealers don't know what they're doing either."

As for the pre-Columbian art turned up in that Coconut Grove house: This past September, the 168 stolen items — which were illegally dug up from historic sites around Ecuador — were at last sent back to their homeland, along with 583 other pieces the thieves had stockpiled in their hometown of Guayaquil. The alleged offenders got off easy, though. Charges were dropped against Edgar Nakache and Susan Aviles; Cecilia Marcillo-Aviles pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served in prison and fined $600.