FBI Sting Operation Recovers Matisse Owned by Venezuelan Museum

July 18, 2012

(Try guessing which one is real and which one is fake, answer at the end)

An FBI sting operation in Miami led to the recovery of a Matisse painting entitled “Odalisque in Red Pants” owned by the Sofia Imber Museum of Modern Art in Caracas. The FBI agents posed as customers willing to buy the painting from a couple whose name has yet to be disclosed by the FBI.

The story started in 2002 when it was discovered that the Matisse hanging in the museum wall was a fake, after the Chavez administration had changed the Board of the museum a couple of years earlier, including Ms. Imber, who had run it from its beginning (And purchased this particular painting for a relatively low price)

Initially there were accusations that the painting had disappeared after the management change, but others have suggested that the switch took place even before when the painting was lent in 1997 to a Spanish exhibit. However, those at the museum until the management change have stated privately that they would have certainly noticed the switch. The current Director of the museum has suggested it was an inside job, without ever explaining her statement.

The switch was discovered when a collector was offered the painting in 2001-2002 and began performing due diligence on the painting and wrote to the Director of the museum. This led the museum to check the painting and the discovery that the one hanging in Caracas was a fake. The painting was offered to a number of collectors and rumors of that it was for sale have recurred over the years.

Hopefully, with the recovery of the painting the full story of the switcheroo will be revealed and those responsible prosecuted.

For now, this is another picturesque (pun intended) story of the always devious Venezuelans in Government (no matter when the switch took place) always looking for an angle that will make them rich overnight.

Answer: The original is the one on the left

47 Responses to “FBI Sting Operation Recovers Matisse Owned by Venezuelan Museum”

  1. […] the story gets better, The story started in 2002 when it was discovered that the Matisse hanging in the museum wall was […]

  2. syd Says:

    Miguel, please add an update and correction to your ” Answer: The original is the one on the right”.

  3. […] the story gets better, The story started in 2002 when it was discovered that the Matisse hanging in the museum wall was a […]

  4. island canuck Says:


    BCV autoriza la tenencia de fondos en moneda extranjera en bancos universales

    Miguel, my first reaction when I saw this information was “You got to be kidding!”

    Who, in their right mind, would trust this government by putting money in hard currency here in Venezuela? Even the boliburguesas wouldn’t want that kind of information available here in Venezuela.

    Would appreciate an explanation of what is going on here.

    • Mike Says:

      I don’t know what’s going on, seems to me that the government desperately needs $$. I remember however when Argentinians were allowed to have local bank $$ accounts. Then came the “corralito” in Argentina about 10 years ago, when the country defaulted on it’s foreign debt. I believe people couldn’t withdraw their dollars for a year or so and were then given a $1:peso1 bond in national currency for their dollars, when the floating rate had gone to 1:4, meaning they lost 75% of their dollars. So “who in their right mind….” probably summarizes it. But they will probably offer an extraordinaryly high interest rate on these deposits and some fools will fall for it.
      Miguel, please correct me if I got it wrong.

    • island canuck Says:

      Here is further information:

      > El nuevo convenio establece que las personas naturales y jurídicas residenciadas en el país “podrán mantener cuentas” en los bancos universales en divisas, provenientes de la liquidación de bonos adquiridos mediante transacciones en el Sistema de Transacciones de Títulos en Moneda Extranjera (Sitme) .

      > La cuenta denominada en divisas se puede movilizar de dos formas: retiros en Venezuela pagados en bolívares al tipo de cambio oficial y “gastos de consumo y retiros efectuados con tarjetas en el exterior”.

      > En la actualidad el Sitme aprueba divisas a personas naturales con los siguientes topes anuales:
      Para viajes se aprueban 5.000 dólares
      Para enfermedad 10.000 dólares
      Para remesas familiares 6.000 dólares

      > La medida no estipula la apertura de cuenta con fines de ahorro, sino para consumos o pagos establecidos en los convenios como estudiantes, viajes y salud.

      > El convenio señala que los bancos autorizados para mantener estas cuentas deben tenerlas en el Banco Central de Venezuela.

      > La Gaceta Oficial Nº39.968 donde está publicado el convenio señala que entra en vigencia de inmediato.

      > Se espera que los bancos, el BCV o Sudeban informen sobre los requisitos y procedimientos para la apertura de estas cuentas.

      > La medida no excluye el uso de cuentas en el extranjero para liquidación de bonos vía Sitme.

    • dorisclubhipico Says:

      very good points.
      Money needs laundering. What better way for the ill-gotten gains to turn legit, than through the bco central sitme apparatus.
      I assume this regime is doing it out of desperation, and its inability to legitimize their huge individual fortunes.

      Thanks to Island Canuck …Re: Even the boliburguesas wouldn’t want that kind of information available here in Venezuela.

      Would appreciate an explanation of what is going on here.

  5. Jose Marcos Says:

    Miguel, the ABC News video in your link says that the Original is on the left hand side.
    Please review video.

    • moctavio Says:

      Sorry, it was not until now that I realized that I had said right, when I knew the one on the left was the real original and you were all trying to correct me.


  6. Firepigette Says:

    Now one very pertinent question comes to mind… Why do we comply with the custom of hiring personal friends and ” buddies” rather than with ideals of a meritocracy ? Because it makes it easier on us ? The taking over of Chavismo only reinforced this negative tendency.

  7. David Says:

    The real painting is the one on the left. The original Matisse does not have the shadow inthe background

    • syd Says:

      The article in the NYT clarifies that the forgery is on the right. Not so, the Vz news, even El Universal. Instead, they use a photo showing photographers capturing the supposedly fake one, but not reporting which is which.

      Once again, we see … una realidad precaria y penosa. For it points to the qualifications and “pupila” of the museum’s curator.

      It took, not the curator, but a potential buyer to discover the forgery, sometime in 2003. That discovery happened one to three years (depending on who reports the matter) after the forgery replaced the original.

      Clearly, the 5th is no different than the 4th in giving out plum little assignments to pals, rather than to the best qualified for the job.

      I think the Museum has just embarrassed itself in the global art world for its torpeza and ignorancia.

  8. Mike Says:

    The one on the left had breast implants done in Venezuela and therefore is the fake.

  9. Ira Says:

    Wouldn’t ANY real expert recognize a fake in a second?

    The two don’t look remotely close, and one would think that ANY Matisse would have been photographed ad infinitum.

    What am I missing here?

    • firepigette Says:


      The best question of the day.Some art works are very well faked and hard to spot.This one does not look well done to me.I am not an counterfeit art expert yet on first glance the one on the right looked fake to me….just from a general idea of Matisse’s style, and some knowledge of art ( I paint).

      I also found it bizarre, being that the 2 paintings are so amazingly different, that experts could be fooled.What kind of people are working at that museum?

      The truth is I only knew one gal who was a curator there over the years, and I can tell you she was NOT qualified for the job.It was given to her through contacts.

  10. Carolina Says:

    I am wondering how many other pieces might have been also stolen and replaced by a forged copy? The MACC has a couple of Picassos and Miro’s.

  11. BTW Odalisque With Magnolias, is way more luscious

  12. Alex Says:

    In modern Venezuela being a thief, a wise guy or a corrupt fella is the standard way for success and wealth. Becoming a boliburgues is a cool thing down there, the way to reach the membership of Caracas Country Club and people’s praises you for your lack of scrupules. In other countries you´d be a criminal but in Venezuela if you are a hardworker, abide to the law, grow up a company by investing time and money into it, then you are deemed a complete idiot. Great society eh?

    No wonder that a typical Venezuelan crook saw an opportunity of making some quick money by switching a Matisse painting. Just one of the many trying to make an illicit fortune. His only mistake was taking it to the U.S. where wiseguy dealings are usually punished.

  13. My first impression [on the right] was a
    mis-shaped face in the center …
    breasts being the eyes,
    a weird looking nose,
    and a navel that looks
    like a pursed mouth.

    • syd Says:

      tienes razón! the forger used such strong lines to delineate that these appear to create other shapes.

      The thing is, the two paintings are so dissimilar. Maybe not for those who really don’t know Matisse, like me. But you’d think that the curator and others in the Museum would have figured out, early on, that there was something that didn’t meet the eye. It was only because a collector did his/her homework that the forgery came to light.

      Now with hindsight, I see that there’s luminosity to the original that doesn’t appear in the fake. Luminosity in the yellow background by the soft blends of light, umbra and penumbra. The light (from a certain distance) comes from the centre-right hand side (or the odalisque’s left), creating a soft shadow along the edge of the odalisque’s right arm. I suspect Matisse incorporated another light above-centre-right, which in turn created the soft shadow on the odalisque’s neck and especially extending it to her right shoulder.

      The faker’s shadows are way too harsh in comparison.

      Again with hindsight, the forger was certainly an amateur, thinking he/she could fool those with insufficient criteria.

      • syd Says:

        Now that I’ve looked some more and done a little shadow analysis, I’d have to say this. Whereas the painting on the left uses shadows with subtlety, even on Oda’s harem pants, not so the painting on the right, where the shadows behind Oda’s torso are confusing. Here’s why.

        Based on shadows, the forger has the light at cross angles, not too distant from the figure, the light at the right being at a sharper angle than that at the left. You might think, well, that’s possible, to have artificial light shining at cross angles. Trouble is, the intensity of the shadows behind the torso aren’t replicated, at the appropriate size, nor with a similar intensity, behind the head! Furthermore, there’s a conflict between the shadows produced behind the Oda and the light cast on her skin. In fact, the light that shines on the righ-hand side of Oda’s torso (her left) is darker, as though somewhat bathed in shadow. In sum, there are mismatches here. And I doubt that Matisse who was, before he became known as an impressionist painter, a draughtsman (i.e., one who engages in technical exactitudes), would make such blunders.

        The forger doesn’t seem to know much about the dynamics between light and shadow.

        I’d have to say again that the forgery must be that on the right.

      • I know zilch about forgery,
        but I must agree with you.
        the item on the left is anatomically more pleasing to the eye,
        and her face, along with hair, and in general all seem to float ….
        but not at all to my liking.
        Skimming some of the artist’s work,
        It seems he’s fixated with pretzels…
        every tableau’s painted with twisted limbs or bodies…
        I’d prefer Modigliani’s long necked nude.
        Best of all, I’d to side step expensive arty-facts.
        No offense.


      • Actually I’ll take Aristide Mayol [Maillol?]
        statue and art work of model
        Dina Verni(e) any day.

  14. firepigette Says:

    What made me look it up on the internet is that it appears that the lines on the woman’s torso of the painting on the right are rather stiff, when Matisse usually had this amazing sense of the rhythm of line, a rhythm which is both continuous and incredibly flexible

    I am not an expert on Matisse, but this was my impression.I guess we will find out.

    • Dr. Faustus Says:

      Thanks. But the uncertainty remains.

      I kinda agree with Syd’s comments where he wrote: ” It puzzles to see a Matisse with such soft colours.” That’s kinda what I was thinking.

      Art forgery is a fascinating topic. The fact that both of the above paintings are so very dissimilar points to amateurism. Surely when they, the museum, re-hung the matisse after its showing in Spain they would have noticed the differences? Right? I, like Syd, love Matisses use of vibrant colors. Now I am utterly desperate to know which of the above is real, and which is fake. Arggggghhhh!

      • firepigette Says:

        Dr Faustus,

        Both of you could be right, however Matisse went through different periods.To create a feeling of serenity he often toned down the intensity of pure colors.Most of the softer paintings were created during the 20’s if memory serves…Look it up.

        ps the term anemonism comes to mind

  15. Dr. Faustus Says:

    Would someone please,….please!…..tell me which one is the real one and which is the fake? Left or Right?

  16. Roy Says:

    So, will the Venezuelan government officially thank the FBI and the U.S. Government for recovering this for them?

    Waiting… waiting…

    • maria gonzalez Says:

      According with the video that firepigette posted the original one is on the left. The shadow around the women should not be there.

    • syd Says:

      Interesting, fp, thank you. It puzzles to see a Matisse with such soft colours. Though the background is certainly more colourful in the washed-out version than it is in the faked one.

      I’d love to see another confirmation, preferably from the art world. Though it seems from this collection of Matisse’s odalisques http://tinyurl.com/d8uh29z
      that Miguel may have to change his answer to the-guess-which-one-is.

  17. syd Says:

    Small thing, Miguel. Could you please change “costumers” for “customers” in “The FBI agents posed as costumers”?

    Aunque seguramente los agentes también se disfrazaron …

    The forger missed incorporating a number of things: Matisse’s vibrant palette, the shadow behind the odalisque (which would have enhanced the sense of background and perspective), the fewer number of green stripes, and the need to whitewash the otherwise bronze-skinned odalisque.

    When you’re up to no good, when you try to pull a fast one, you tend to make many mistakes.

  18. Dr. Faustus Says:

    It reminds me of an excellent film made in the late 90’s called “The Thomas Crown Affair.” (with Pierce Brosnan). If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the effort to find it. It is extremely difficult to sell any known painting with an acceptable ‘provenance.’ The Chavistas should stick to fraudulent oil contracts and stay out of the art world.

    • Dr. Faustus Says:

      Er, that should read: “without an acceptable ‘provenance.’

      Love Matisse.

    • island canuck Says:

      The original “Thomas Crown Affair” was with Steve McQueen &, IMHO, better.

      That really ages me doesn’t it?

      • Roberto N Says:

        Your cedula has just hit the ground! Plop!!! 🙂

      • Dr. Faustus Says:

        In most cases I would agree with you. But,… The original Thomas Crown Affair was good,…but I think the re-make was actually better. Rene Russo was outstanding. The music was excellent. The beauty of that Caribbean hideaway was stunning. The end scene where Thomas Crown appears in a boller hat and briefcase and marches through the museum was well done. Good film.

        • moctavio Says:

          I could really date myself by asking: Is that movie taken from a book by Robert Goddard written in the 60’s? I can’t find it in Amazon.

        • Dr. Faustus Says:

          I have no idea. The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo was surely re-written as a stand alone movie script. It probably had little to do with the book. But, but it was a very good movie. It concerned a stolen paintings, a Monet!. The painting shown in the film was in fact Monets sunset at Le Havre, where he grew-up as a child. So, the film had some plausibility. If you haven’t seen it,….rent it!

  19. Carolina Says:

    Sera que el gobierno va a agradecer públicamente al FBI?

  20. John Barnard Says:

    I’m guessing the one on the left is fake.

  21. Antonio Says:

    I agree. The laptop on the left looks fake.

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