Wednesday 16 October 2019

Looted art: the new currency for Venezuela's corrupted elite

US officials help opposition track 'lost' artefacts

Mystery: Odalisque in Red Pants by Henri Matisse. Photo: AP Photo/Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum
Mystery: Odalisque in Red Pants by Henri Matisse. Photo: AP Photo/Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum

Joshua Goodman

US officials are investigating the suspected looting of European and Latin American artwork they believe is being quietly plundered by Venezuelan government insiders as Nicolas Maduro struggles to maintain his grip on power.

The US Treasury in recent months has sought the cooperation of the FBI, Italian police and museum experts to identify and locate the missing artwork. Among the objects being traced: three Venezuelan masterpieces that hung for decades on the walls of the ambassador's residence in Washington - but which were nowhere to be found when opposition leader Juan Guaido's envoy took over the diplomatic mission in May.

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Although the paintings are the only ones unaccounted for, there are fears many more could be missing as Venezuela's dire economic situation takes its toll on the country's once prized collections and financial sanctions target corrupt insiders who have long used art to launder money.

The missing mid-20th century paintings, which were last publicly exhibited at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington in 2008, are a landscape of Caracas' imposing Avila mountain by Manuel Cabre, the portrait Juanita by Armando Reveron and a work of social realism by Hector Poleo called The Broken Doll.

Together the three works are worth around $1m. But their true value is as icons of Venezuela's cultural heritage - a patrimony that Venezuelans fear could be lost amid the country's ongoing chaos, much like the ancient artefacts looted from Afghanistan and Iraq during recent wars.

In the case of Venezuela, crippling US financial sanctions are making it hard for Maduro insiders to access Western financial institutions. The oblique and unregulated art market is an ideal way to stash illegal proceeds from corruption that the opposition-controlled congress estimates reached a staggering $400bn in recent years.

Former embassy staffers quietly warned opposition lawmakers a few years back that the Washington residence's artwork was at risk. The last known sighting is from a photo distributed by the embassy in 2012 showing the two paintings framing the doorway of an elegant salon.

Fitting the country's reputation as a petro-dollar state, past governments spent lavishly on art when the oil wells were gushing, much of it used to decorate Venezuela's embassies abroad. Hundreds of prominent works were seized by the country's Bank Deposit Protection Fund from once high-flying institutions following a banking crisis in the 1990s. But the artworks were also fodder for abuse in government institutions plagued by corruption.

Even in better times, Venezuela was ripe for high-stakes museum heists. A painting by the French artist Henri Matisse, Odalisque in Red Pants, went missing two decades ago from the Museum of Contemporary Art and was replaced by a badly produced fake. The original was discovered in 2012 in a Miami hotel room and returned by the FBI to Venezuela's government two years later. A Cuban man and a Mexican woman were arrested trying to sell the painting to undercover FBI agents in Miami, but who was behind the theft, and even when it took place, remains a mystery.

Today, the museum, which boasted the largest collection of contemporary art in Latin America in the 1970s, is a shadow of its former glory. Galleries are mostly empty, and the artwork exposed to the tropical heat after air conditioning units were damaged in the frequent blackouts ravaging the capital.

One of the museum's highlights, a collection of 147 works by Picasso, is no longer on permanent display, although it did make a brief appearance at a rare show last year titled 'Comrade Picasso' that stressed the Spanish artist's communist activism.

A few blocks away, at the Museum of Fine Arts, the situation is even more desperate. Only about a third of its 18 galleries are open to the public; the rest have been closed for months for renovations, though there's no sign of any taking place. A museum employee loosened a thin rope that was the only security for the shuttered and sweltering salons containing priceless Baroque paintings and delicate 18th-century works by the Spanish master Francisco Goya.

The museum worker recalled how when he started his job two decades ago there were 34 curator-guides. Today, there are just two. And while he doesn't know of artwork being stolen, the collection is vulnerable, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job for talking to a reporter. He recalls how a few months ago a Chinese businessman came to the museum every day taking pictures and through a translator offered large sums of cash for an ancient Greek vase. He was only turned back after the staff removed the object from exhibition.

"Maybe one night he could've hidden during closing hours and slept inside the museum," said the man with a shrug of resignation. "It's easy to imagine lots of things."

©Associated Press

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