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Quirky Matisse exhibit rekindles art mystery in Venezuela

CARACAS - Venezuela is flaunting its newly-recovered Henri Matisse painting next to a sloppy copy that was put in its place when the original was stolen more than a decade ago, rekindling an art-world mystery.

The "Odalisque in Red Pants," worth roughly $3 million, was stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art at some point during a tumultuous period after the start of socialist Hugo Chavez's presidency in 1999.

The theft went unnoticed for months or even years because the robbers replaced it with a forgery.

To this day, no one has been charged with the crime nor have its exact circumstances been established.

The original was finally retrieved in 2012 after it was offered to undercover FBI agents at a Miami Beach hotel for about $740,000.

The striking topless odalisque, a word of Turkish origin meaning concubine, traveled back to Venezuela last July to great fanfare.

She now graces the same museum again, right next to the gaudy imitation that long duped visitors, allowing the public to compare the two and reviving interest in the mystery over who poached it and why the theft took so long to come to light.

"It's a very bad copy," said Venezuelan artist Elizabeth Cemborain, who was fascinated by the case. "It doesn't have the original's design, it doesn't have its elegance. I don't understand how no one realized."

The forgery is, indeed, shockingly amateurish.

It is in acrylic rather than oil, and has six horizontal green stripes instead of seven plus a big brown stain in the middle. The odalisque's sweet face looks contorted in the fake, and even her famous red trousers are off-color.

The museum touts the exhibit as an opportunity to learn about the illegal traffic of cultural goods, and an educational video explains the many differences between the two paintings.

"This exhibit just generates more questions. It's almost a piece of contemporary art in and of itself," said Cemborain.

Venezuela's culture ministry the National Museums Foundation did not respond to requests for comments.

Odalisque's odyssey

The museum says its coveted Matisse had been stolen by 2001 but Venezuelan journalist Marianela Balbi, who wrote a respected book about the robbery, argues it was snatched sometime between December 1999, when it was moved for protection from floods, and mid-2000.

While Balbi says the museum was negligent, she has not directly accused any officials of involvement in the heist.

In 2002, after a brief coup against Chavez plunged Venezuela into chaos, Matisse's muse surfaced in Florida.

A self-identified Venezuelan National Guard colonel tried to sell it to a Miami art dealer, according to Balbi's "The Kidnapping of the Odalisque."

In late 2002, Venezuela-born Miami gallery owner Genaro Ambrosino got wind the painting was on the market.

Ambrosino says he tried to corroborate the information with the museum only to be ignored or told there was a bogus painting circulating.

"I was furious," Ambrosino told Reuters. "So I sent an email to everyone I knew in the art world."

A stunned Caracas art scene started asking questions and Venezuela in December 2002 finally announced its Matisse, bought for $480,000 from a New York gallery in 1981, had indeed been poached.

Balbi says it changed hands several times between art thieves and apparently unsuspecting dealers over a decade, including stops in New York, Paris, and Mexico, before the FBI seized it back in Miami.

A U.S. judge last year sentenced two people to prison for trying to sell the stolen painting, and Venezuela requested it be returned.

"It's absurd that they're showing the copy too," Balbi said of the new exhibit. "It legitimizes the object of a crime that Venezuelan authorities haven't done anything about in 12 years." — Reuters