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Chavez, Matisse, and the Heist That Shook the Americas

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."

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Michael E. Miller

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