Five Crazy Stories of Stolen Art and Artifacts That Turned Up in Miami

"Odalisque in Red Pants"
"Odalisque in Red Pants" Henri Matisse
click to enlarge "Odalisque in Red Pants" - HENRI MATISSE
"Odalisque in Red Pants"
Henri Matisse
Last week, a British charity revealed that a 90-year-old retiree in Aventura had just casually been harboring a stolen piece of Stonehenge for the last 60 years. Back in 1958, the man, Robert Phillips, had been working for a firm that was trying to restore a banged-up rock at the ancient site. Phillips' firm drilled a few holes into the rock to insert some metal tubes, and Phillips ran away with a broomstick-sized cutout from Stonehenge. He then took it with him when he moved from the U.K. to the U.S., and the piece sat in his office until he finally decided to send it back to where it came from.

But the Stonehenge core is far from the only insane artifact that's turned up in South Florida. In fact, the area's unique combination of retirees, wayward travelers, and outright criminals have turned Miami into a haven for art thieves and black-market artifact deals. Here's a recap of some of the wilder stories:

1. A Matisse stolen from Venezuela turned up here:
In the dark of the hotel room, the ultraviolet lamp ignited like Promethean fire. A middle-aged American with gray hair leaned low over the bed, his gaunt face glowing in the purple light. Beneath him lay a weathered canvas, its edges cracked and crumbling. The man inhaled deeply. Then, with gloved hands, he slowly swept the lamp along the painting's smooth surface.

A pair of crimson pants legs sprang from the shadows. The man moved the lamp a few inches more and a woman's belly gleamed soft and white. Her bare breasts were full and pink, her mouth small and puckered like a wilted rose. At last, the man shone the light into her eyes: dark, inscrutable orbs peering out from the canvas for the first time in a decade.

"It's real," the American said, standing up and shutting off the lamp.

The American's young assistant — a pretty woman in pearls and a pale-green blouse — pulled open the curtains, and light poured into the hotel room. Outside, South Beach was suffering through another scorcher during the summer of 2012. Inside, however, it was a celebration. After a year of furtive meetings and coded phone conversations, it was finally time to make a deal.

Photos were snapped and a call was made to arrange the agreed-upon $740,000 payment.

A heavyset Cuban man with a black guayabera and a salt-and-pepper buzzcut stood near the window. He had been nervously pacing all morning. Now that the deal was done, he began to flirt with the pretty American in pearls. "Now I make love to her," he said in broken English, gesturing to the nude painting.

"No!" she giggled. "Don't you dare do anything to La Gorda." Then she picked up the phone to order champagne.

2. Frenchman Bernard Ternus tried to sell four paintings, including a Monet, that had been stolen from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice, France:
Two months after the robbery, a Frenchmen cruises past Aventura Mall on his scooter. He pulls into a plaza across the street and leaves the scooter near Target. He walks across the parking lot and stands in front of a Marshalls department store.

His name is Bernard Jean Ternus. He's five-foot-eight, with a short light-brown mullet, a triangular face, athletic shoulders, and an ample paunch. The 54-year-old is, by all accounts, friendly. But his police record in France dates back to 1966, when he was 13, and includes breaking and entering, theft, armed robbery, possession of stolen goods, destruction of a vehicle, and, as recently as 2002, assault with a deadly weapon.

Ternus isn't waiting long when an American sedan rented from Alamo pulls up. The Frenchman gets in, and the car parks near the back of the lot.

The driver is a nicely dressed gentleman in his 60s. His name is Bob. He never gives his last name. He has an open collar and expensive slacks and shoes. He's tall, knowledgeable, and confident. In the back seat is a friend of a friend of Ternus's who speaks French and English.

Bob hands Ternus some pages he has printed off the Internet. "These are the insurance values," Bob says through the translator. Ternus sorts through them. Bob explains that because the paintings were stolen so recently, their value on a black market will be considerably less than the figures on these sheets.

"I just need to get this done," Ternus says in French. His English is horrible, and his Spanish isn't much better.
3. Jacob Jordaen's The Last Supper turned up at a Broward La Quinta Inn:

Via the Sun-Sentinel:
A 17th-century Flemish painting stolen from a British museum was recovered on Thursday by FBI agents in a Plantation hotel.

Agents arrested three people who were trying to sell The Last Supper from a room at La Quinta Inn on Peters Road. FBI officials declined to identify the individuals, who are being detained for possible violations of interstate transportation of stolen property and conspiracy.

The painting, by Jacob Jordaens, is estimated to be worth between $50,000 and $100,000. It was stolen four years ago from The Rectory in Surrey, outside London. The oil painting, measuring 45 inches by 65 inches, is in bad shape. "When they rolled it up, they created creases and cracks in the canvas," said FBI special agent Mike Fabregas. After analysis, FBI's South Florida office plans to turn over the painting to British authorities.

4. Someone stole a tiny Pablo Picasso piece from a Miami Art Week fair:
A good lesson for Art Basel-goers: If you try to get millions in art for a buck, a cup of coffee, and a hastily brandished firearm, you're going to have some trouble with the fuzz.

Miami-Dade Police have arrested a local man accused of stealing millions of dollars in paintings at gunpoint Tuesday — but they have yet to track down the missing artwork.

Jorge Alberto Gonzalez, a 47-year-old Southwest Dade resident, was arrested late Wednesday and charged with two felonies, including the alleged theft of ten paintings worth more than $1 million.

5. The FBI in 2006 nabbed a group of people who were trafficking priceless pre-Colombian artifacts from Ecuador:

Amanda Moran's eyes widened as she walked from a blinding July afternoon into the cool living room of a red-roofed house just off South Dixie Highway in Coconut Grove. Piled like cheap toys in this ordinary suburban house, some tightly wrapped in Ecuadorian newspaper, were more than 160 pieces from the most incredible collection of pre-Columbian artifacts ever smuggled into the United States. On one table sat a squat clay vase with a dusty-looking handle. On a couch lay a glinting ancient breastplate. On the coffee table stood a four-inch-tall figurine used by shamans in the Andes 6,000 years ago to cast out evil spirits.

Then Edgar Nakache, Moran's 49-year-old host, gave her the sales pitch. "We're upping the price to $5 million for the whole set," he said.

A few seconds later, a team of FBI agents swooped into the living room and cuffed Nakache, as well as his cohorts, 71-year-old Cecilia Marcillo-Aviles and her daughter, Susan Aviles, age 46.

Moran, you see, is an undercover agent. The priceless antiquities had been stolen from Ecuador and brazenly smuggled through customs at MIA. The raid, which took place in July 2006, was the largest bust ever of looted pre-Columbian items, according to the FBI. But it was far from an extraordinary event in Miami, a global center in the international art crime circuit — an enterprise that accounts for more than $6 billion a year, more than the cross-border trade of diamonds, sex, or hot cars.

With Art Basel, one of the world's largest art fairs, opening this week, organizers are stepping up security and warning everyone to hang on to their Picassos — and to make very, very sure that Warhol is the real deal before slapping down six figures in cash.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.