Two summers ago, Miami was the stage for one of the strangest FBI sting operations on record. On July 17, 2012, undercover agents set up a clandestine deal in a pricey South Beach hotel room. With hidden cameras recording his every move, an unwitting suspect carefully removed the much-coveted object from inside a cardboard tube. Then the cops kicked down the door.
But the illicit good wasn't an assault rifle or a brick of Colombian yeyo. It was a stolen painting.
The recovery in Miami of Henri Matisse's Odalisque in Red Pants — described in our September 4 feature, "Vanishing Point" — was no fluke, however. Miami may still be maturing as an international cultural capital, but it's long been a black-market boomtown. Dozens of near-priceless pieces of art or antiquities have mysteriously surfaced in Miami, only to be seized by authorities.
"We do know that Miami is a point of entry for a lot of this stuff," says Stephen Urice, a law professor at the University of Miami who studies stolen artifacts.
Why Miami? It's a convenient meeting point for rich Americans, Europeans, and Latinos, and its airport is one of the busiest in the world. But the Matisse case and others suggest Miami is especially fertile ground for furtive deals, whether it's illegal arms or artwork.
"There's a lot of money in South Florida, some of it dirty,'' U.S. Customs spokesman Michael Sheehan told the Miami Herald in 1999. "They know the people will keep it quiet because their money is dirty just like the art is hot.''
The trend began in the '80s, when the city was flush with drug money. In 1982, some South Florida businessmen plotted to hold paintings by Degas, Monet, and Whistler for ransom. If their demands weren't met, they would send the shredded art to the New York Times. Instead, FBI agents posing as museum tour guides took down the gang before it could nab the paintings. During the arrest, the feds found two pieces by Rubens stolen years earlier.
Seven years later, a retired Argentine policeman was apprehended with a stolen Goya in Miami Beach. Another Rubens was found inside a briefcase aboard a flight from Nicaragua. In 1993, a mashup of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong was recovered from Colombian drug smugglers. And in 1999, the FBI found Jacob Jordaens' The Last Supper at a La Quinta Inn in Plantation.
Most common are cases of pre-Columbian artifacts smuggled through Miami, Urice says. In 1982, for instance, customs agents at Miami International Airport found $200,000 worth of Mayan jewelry inside a box marked "garden tools." Six years later, it was ancient Peruvian pottery hidden inside cheap furniture. Perhaps the strangest find was in 1995, when MIA inspectors discovered a solid-gold ceremonial rattle and a mummified head inside a crate, also from Peru. Or maybe it was the shipment of decorated craniums from the same country intercepted at MIA in 2003.
Not all the loot comes from Latin America. In 1991, the FBI found $7 million worth of stolen Irish antiquities — including the headstone for Saint Dermot's grave — on a 54-foot sailboat. Eight years later, the feds dug into a crate of fresh fish and found 271 items lifted from the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth in Greece.
The title of South Florida's shadiest seized artifact, however, easily goes to the Egyptian sarcophagus uncovered at MIA in 2008. An American collector had bought the coffin in Spain. But when he tried to import it to the States, Egyptian officials cried foul. The sarcophagus was returned to Cairo two years later.
Urice says some oddball collectors with an obsession don't try too hard to find out where their new prize came from. Other times, the stolen art simply becomes currency on Silk Road or other black markets.
"It's like, 'I'll trade my Matisse for some cocaine, and then you give me some arms for my cocaine; I trade those arms for a Picasso...' " Urice says. "Just about everything is for sale."