(MIAMI) — A $3 million missing Matisse painting that had been stolen nearly 10 years ago and swapped for a fake at a Venezuelan museum has reportedly been recovered by FBI agents posing as art collectors at the Loews Hotel in Miami Beach.
A man and a woman allegedly tried to sell Henri Matisse’s 1925 “Odalisque in Red Pants” to undercover agents for $1.5 million, reported ABC’s Miami affiliate WPLG.
James Marshall, spokesman for the FBI’s Miami division, said he could, “neither confirm nor deny information on this matter at this time.”
The original painting of the dark-haired woman kneeling topless in red pants had been on display at the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum in Caracas since 1981, save when it was loaned to a Spanish exhibition in 1997, WPLG reported.
But an email correspondence in 2002 between the museum’s director, Rita Salvestrini, and Miami art collector Genaro Ambrosino regarding a rumor that the painting was for sale led to the realization that the Matisse hanging in the museum was a forgery.
“The person who made the fake is quite intelligent,” said Todd Cronan, a professor of art history at Emory University in Atlanta.
Cronan said that what made the counterfeit different from the original was the shadow on the woman’s left arm.
“It merges the body with the background,” he said. “That’s something Matisse refused to do in this period.”
Even though critics are divided over Matisse’s works in the 1920s, which has resulted in their sometimes being priced lower than some of his other paintings, Cronan said that the $1.5 million asking price for “Odalisque in Red Pants” was very low.
An administrator at the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum confirmed to ABC News that the painting had been stolen, but for security reasons, would not provide more information about the investigation.
The Caracas newspaper El Mundo speculated that the Matisse may have been swapped during the 1997 Spanish exhibition loan.
In 2004, the FBI created the Art Crime Team, which works with foreign law enforcement officials and the FBI’s legal attache offices in art-related investigations.
The specialized unit has recovered more than 2,500 items valued at more than $150 million since its inception.
According to the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, this is not the first Matisse work to have been reported stolen. The artist’s 1905 painting “Luxembourg Garden” has yet to be recovered.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Eliott C. McLaughlin and Paul Vercammen, CNN
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