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Art Theft Recovery: From Sting Operations to Trash Cans

Topless women outside Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art protest for return of Henri Matisse painting.
Photo courtesy of Violette Bule
Topless women outside Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art protest for return of Henri Matisse painting.

Last month, a dozen topless Venezuelan women gathered in front of the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art in protest. Yet they weren’t rallying for women’s rights or equality; instead, they were standing their ground for the sake of stolen art.

The half-clothed women (warning: explicit content) demanded the U.S. return a $3 million-dollar Henri Matisse painting, reported stolen from the Caracas museum in December 2002. The “Odalisque in Red Pants” had not been seen in public, until undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agents recovered it during a sting operation in Miami Beach on July 17.

According to recent U.S. Justice Department statistics, art crime is an industry estimated at $6 billion — surpassed only by drug and gun trafficking trades.

Watch “Crime Inc: Art for the Taking” to learn more. Tonight at 9p ET/PT on CNBCIn the case of the Matisse painting, Miami-based Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman and Mexico City resident Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo allegedly tried to sell the painting for $740,000 -- a fraction of its value -- before they were arrested. They were indicted for conspiracy to transport and sell stolen property, facing up to ten years in prison if convicted at their trial in November.

Citing the pending trial, the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment on how it would dispose of the Matisse painting. However, former FBI Special Agent Robert Wittman, who served as an art theft specialist for two decades and is familiar with the case, had his own ideas.

“The U.S. has no interest in holding onto the painting," Wittman said, even though authorities need it in the short-term for evidentiary purposes. "It depends on the U.S. Attorney’s office how they want to proceed, but I’m confident it will be returned to the Venezuelan Embassy."


Caught in the Act: Selling Stolen Art

Caught in the Act: Selling Stolen Art

According to Wittman, who now owns his own investigative agency Robert Wittman Inc. , most thieves are caught when they tried to cash in on stolen art.

Photographers take pictures of the painting 'Odalisque in Red Pants' of French painter Henri Matisse.
Felix Gerardi | AFP | Getty Images
Photographers take pictures of the painting 'Odalisque in Red Pants' of French painter Henri Matisse.

The FBI estimated that less than six percent of art property crime is ever solved. Still, according to Wittman that number is deceiving because it includes low-value items, such as vases taken in home burglaries, icons from churches, and stolen family heirlooms.

“It’s these smaller pieces that aren’t recovered because they’re not easily identifiable, but they are the vast majority taken,” Wittman said. That differs from the approximately 90 percent of high-value art stolen from museums and galleries, which were recovered because such pieces are difficult to sell.

“When you steal high profile art, the chances of being able to sell it and keep it under ground for any length of time is zero,” Wittman said.

In his 20 years at the FBI, Wittman recovered more than $250 million worth of art, including Indian headdresses, Civil war artifacts and numerous famous paintings.

The most expensive piece of art Wittman recovered was also gone the longest. As part of a 2003 sting operation in Philadelphia, Wittman scored one of the original copies of The Bill of Rights, hand-written by George Washington’s clerk and signed by John Adams.

The piece of history was valued at $100 million and had been missing since 1865 when Union troops ransacked the Raleigh, N.C. State House during the Civil War.

“It’s ironic that an FBI agent would recover the Bill of Rights because when you join the Bureau you pledge to protect the Constitution," he said. "But I never thought I’d be protecting the actual, real document.”

Scams, scams, and more scams.

Finding Stolen Treasures in Unlikely Places

Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo's 'Tres Personajes'.
Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images
Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo's 'Tres Personajes'.

In some cases, high-valued stolen art remained hidden in closets and other unlikely places for years, because thieves could not find any buyer willing to purchase it.

In other cases, it turned up in the trash. One such painting was the “Three People” by Rufino Tamayo, one of Mexico’s most well-known artists. The painting, missing since the late 1980s, was among garbage bags on a New York City curb when Elizabeth Gibson found it in 2003.

According to Gibson, she held onto it for years, not knowing its true value. Once she realized she had inadvertently garbage-picked a masterpiece, the FBI got involved and contacted the original owner. The piece was eventually auctioned off for $1 million by Sotheby’s in 2007, and Gibson received a $15,000 reward from the original owner.

“I think that’s just great luck,” Wittman said.

In one of Wittman’s first cases, a statue of the Egyptian God “Osiris” showed up in a local Philadelphia thrift shop. It had been stolen, along with a 19th century Chinese crystal ball, from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology in 1988.

A local garbage picker brought it into the thrift shop, not knowing it was worth thousands of dollars, Wittman told CNBC’s “Crime Inc.”

The homeowner of the trash said he found the statue in his garage when he bought the house, along with the crystal ball.

The 50 pound crystal ball had come from China’s Forbidden City. It was the second largest in the world, according to Wittman.

Unaware that it was valued at $350,000, the homeowner had given the crystal ball to his maid.

“So, this piece is sitting on her dresser and it's got her boyfriend's baseball cap on it you know. I asked her, I said, ‘Why-why'd you put a baseball cap on it?’ She said, ‘Well because the sun would hit it and it was acting like a magnifying glass and would shoot the rays and create little fires,’" he said.

The FBI believed both pieces were likely stolen by frat boys pulling a prank.

Replacing the Real With a Fake

The original painting by Henri Matisse titled "Odalisque in Pants," left, is seen next to a fake version, that was on display in the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas, Venezuela. The museum bought it in 1981.
Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum
The original painting by Henri Matisse titled "Odalisque in Pants," left, is seen next to a fake version, that was on display in the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas, Venezuela. The museum bought it in 1981.

In the case of the Matisse painting recovered by FBI agents in Miami, thieves had stolen it from the Caracas museum by replacing the original with a forgery. Wittman said that happened quite often, but finding a buyer for such high-profile pieces was difficult for two reasons.

First, it's a huge risk to buy and display a painting that was known to be stolen.

Secondly, even if an original painting is stolen and swapped out with a forgery and museum officials did not realize it, “Who’s going to go out and buy a painting that should be hanging in a museum? People will think you bought the fake. How are you going to prove yours is real?” Wittman said.

Case in point is the Matisse painting. It took nearly a decade to surface, and nobody made any money on it.

So who usually ends up buying high-profile stolen art?

“That’s easy,” Wittman said, “the FBI and other law enforcement.”

Watch “Crime Inc.: Art for the Taking” at 9P ET/PT tonight on CNBC.

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  • Art crimes rake in $6 billion a year from home invasions to museum heists to forgers passing off high-priced fakes.

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