In 2002, a Caracas art museum discovered the Matisse hanging there since 1981 had been swapped with a fake. This week an FBI sting in Miami recovered the original. What happened?
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
An FBI sting operation in Miami led to the recovery of a Matisse painting entitled “Odalisque in Red Pants” owned by the Sofia Imber Museum of Modern Art in Caracas. The FBI agents posed as customers willing to buy the painting from a couple whose name has yet to be disclosed by the FBI.
The story started in 2002 when it was discovered that the Matisse hanging in the museum wall was a fake, after the Chavez administration had changed the board of the museum a couple of years earlier, including Ms. Imber, who had run it from its beginning (and purchased this particular painting for a relatively low price).
Initially there were accusations that the painting had disappeared after the management change, but others have suggested that the switch took place even before that, when the painting was lent to a Spanish exhibit in 1997. However, those at the museum until the management change have stated privately that they would have certainly noticed the switch. The current director of the museum has suggested it was an inside job, without ever explaining her statement.
The switch was discovered when a collector was offered the painting in 2001-2002 and began performing due diligence on the painting and wrote to the director of the museum. This led the museum to check the painting and the discovery that the one hanging in Caracas was a fake. The painting was offered to a number of collectors and rumors that it was for sale have recurred over the years.
Hopefully, with the recovery of the painting the full story of the switcheroo will be revealed and those responsible prosecuted.
For now, this is another picturesque (pun intended) story of the always devious Venezuelans in Government (no matter when the switch took place) always looking for an angle that will make them rich overnight.