A painting by French modernist master Henri Matisse had been missing for more than a decade, but authorities uncovered it yesterday at, of all places, the Loews Hotel in Miami Beach during an undercover sting. The painting, which is estimated to be worth upward of $3 million, is the property of Sofía Imber Contemporary Art Museum in Caracas, Venezuela, but the museum didn't even realize it was missing at first. That's because the museum was unknowingly displaying a replica.
The 1925 painting, titled Odalisque in Red Pants, had been in the Venezuelan museum's collection since 1981 and had left only once when it was on loan to a museum in Spain in 1997. Sometime between that trip to Spain and the early '00s, however, someone stole the painting and replaced it with a replica.
The original painting on the right; the fake the museum had been displaying on the left.
Despite the fact that the replica was crudely done and had noticeable differences from the original, the museum didn't realize the switcheroo until 2003. According to The Daily Mail, in November 2002, Miami art collector Genaro Ambrosino heard the painting was up for sale, so he contacted the museum's director, Rita Salvestrini. She informed the Miami collector that the painting was indeed still in their collection, but she kept hearing odd reports of rumors that the piece was being offered for sale. After an investigation, the museum determined that at some point the painting had indeed been stolen and replaced.
"The people who knew that the piece was being circulated around the world never informed us," Salvestrini told the Mail. "The thing is, it didn't occur to anyone the piece could have been authentic."
It took them nearly a decade to find the original.
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FBI agents finally tracked it down yesterday. They heard the painting was for sale and arranged a meeting between undercover officers and an unknown couple who was attempting to sell it.
The identities of the would-be sellers have not been released.