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Mystery of the fake Matisse masterpiece leads to jail time

Matisse's 'Odalisque in Red Pants' was switched for a fake at a Caracas museum, then recovered in an FBI sting at a Miami Beach hotel. Two conspirators were sentenced this week.

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Nearly a decade after being lifted from a Venezuelan museum, a painting by French master Henri Matisse is heading home while the two individuals who tried to sell the $2 million art work on the black market are heading to prison.

The missing painting, “Odalisque in Red Pants,” has been at the center of a deepening mystery since December 2002 when officials at the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art discovered that someone had switched their genuine Matisse for a fake.

It is unclear precisely when the switch took place. And no one has ever been charged or arrested for the theft.

Rumors occasionally circulated in the art world that someone wanted to sell the painting, but potential buyers dismissed the reports, assuming the offered work was a fake.

Then, in the fall of 2011, a Miami man put word out that “Odalisque in Red Pants” was for sale, according to court documents.

By December, Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman had begun serious negotiations with individuals he believed were unscrupulous art collectors anxious to purchase stolen masterpieces at black-market prices.

After assuring the potential customers that the painting had been assessed at over $3 million, he agreed to sell the work for $740,000.

As part of the deal, Mr. Marcuello would receive $555,000 in cash, with the rest of the money to be wired into a Mexico City bank account prior to transfer of the painting.

But first the buyers wanted to see the painting and verify its authenticity.

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