FBI agents find missing Matisse in undercover sting

Posted at 10:30 PM, Jul 18, 2012
and last updated 2012-07-18 22:30:36-04

(CNN) — Undercover FBI agents in Florida found what investigators believe is a stolen Henri Matisse painting that had been missing for nearly a decade, officials said Wednesday.

Two suspects were arrested in Miami Beach after trying to sell “Odalisque in Red Pants,” valued at $3 million, federal prosecutors said.

The painting was stolen from a Venezuelan art museum in 2002, the statement said.

Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman, 46, of Miami and Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo, 50, of Mexico City are charged with transporting and possessing the stolen painting, the FBI said. If convicted, they face up to 10 years in prison.

Undercover agents made the arrest Tuesday at Loews Miami Beach Hotel, CNN affiliate WPLG reported.

Marcuello set up the deal, told agents he knew the painting was stolen and asked them to pay $740,000 for it, the FBI and federal prosecutors said Wednesday, citing an affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint.

Ornelas was a Mexican national who worked as a vacation rental agent in Acapulco, according to WPLG.

She arrived at the Miami International Airport on a flight from Mexico City on Monday, carrying a red tube containing the painting, prosecutors said. The next day, Ornelas and Marcuello met with undercover agents and were arrested.

Sarah Murov, a spokeswoman for the hotel, declined to comment, referring questions to the FBI.

The Venezuelan government had “initiated the steps for the prompt return” of the painting and asked the FBI to confirm reports of its recovery, the country’s Institute of Cultural Patrimony said.

“Odalisque in Red Pants” was reported stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003, when officials revealed that another painting that had been hanging in its place was a fake.

The museum purchased the painting from a New York art gallery in 1981.

Marcuello and Ornelas made their first appearance in a Florida federal court Wednesday. Their pretrial detention hearing is scheduled for Friday.