Chavez, Matisse, and the Heist That Shook the Americas

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 that 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. 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.

Odalisque in Red Pants is one of the most famous and expensive artworks to ever 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.

Read the full story, "Chavez, Matisse, and the Heist That Shook the Americas," here.

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Michael E. Miller