October 31, 2012 / 11:05 PM / 5 years ago

Two plead guilty in Miami to trying to sell stolen Matisse

3 Min Read

MIAMI (Reuters) - A man and woman have pleaded guilty to charges of trying to sell a stolen painting by French master Henri Matisse worth $3 million nearly 10 years after it went missing from a Venezuelan museum, authorities said on Wednesday.

FBI undercover agents arrested Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, 46, of Miami, Florida, and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo, 50, of Mexico City, Mexico, during a sting operation at a Miami Beach hotel in July.

According to officials, Marcuello negotiated the sale of the painting, a 1925 work known as "Odalisque in Red Pants" (Odalisque a la culotte rouge), for $740,000 with undercover agents posing as buyers and then arranged for the painting to be flown from Mexico to Miami by Ornelas.

Both were arrested after they handed over the painting.

The two entered their guilty pleas to charges of conspiracy to transport and sell stolen property on Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami said in a statement.

Marcuello faces up to 10 years in prison, while Ornela could receive a maximum sentence of five years.

The painting, which depicts a bare-chested woman in bright red pants seated on the floor with her legs crossed, had been missing from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art for years.

In December 2002, officials at the museum, known at the time as the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum, announced the painting had been stolen and replaced with a fake.

They discovered the theft after the museum was reportedly contacted by an art collector who heard it was being offered for sale in New York.

When experts inspected the work hanging in the museum, they noticed subtle differences between the original and the forgery, including a noticeable shadow behind the woman which did not appear in the original.

The Sofia Imber Museum purchased the painting from the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1981 for $400,000. The painting is now valued at approximately $3 million.

Matisse, considered one of the painters to revolutionize the art scene in the first half of the 20th-century along with Pablo Picasso, is a popular target of art thieves.

The FBI's National Stolen Art File database lists five other missing Matisse works, including a collection of 62 sketches.

Reporting by Kevin Gray; editing by Todd Eastham

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