AP Exclusive: US helping Venezuela's Guaido track stolen art

In this Sept. 17, 2019, photo, Henri Matisse's Odalisque in Red Pants hangs on a wall in front of a copy of the same painting in the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas, Venezuela. Even in better times Venezuela was ripe for some high-stakes museum heists: sometime after Hugo Chavez took power in 1999, this paining went missing from the museum and replaced by a badly-produced fake. The original was discovered a decade later in a Miami hotel room and returned by the FBI with great fanfare to Venezuela’s government in 2014. (AP Photo/Andrea Hernandez Briceño)

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

CARACAS, Venezuela — U.S. officials are investigating the suspected looting of valuable 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 U.S. 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 stately residence in Washington but which were nowhere to be found when opposition leader Juan Guaido's envoy took over the diplomatic mission in May.

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 as a way to launder money.

"This is likely just the tip of the iceberg," said Carlos Vecchio, an exiled politician who the U.S. recognizes as Venezuela's ambassador. He pointed to a large empty wooden frame still hanging above the fireplace in the residence's den where he believes one of the missing canvasses was ripped from the wall. "If this is what they've managed to do with some artwork at a single diplomatic mission, you can imagine what they've done inside Venezuela."

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 Cabré, the portrait "Juanita" by Armando Reverón and a work of social realism by Héctor Poleo called "The Broken Doll."

Together the three works are believed to be worth around $1 million, according to an appraisal ordered by Vecchio. But their true value is as icons of Venezuela's cultural heritage — a patrimony that Venezuelan art experts fear could be lost amid the country's ongoing chaos, much like thousands of ancient artifacts were looted from Afghanistan and Iraq during those countries' recent wars.

"The moral damage is enormous," said María Luz Cardenas, the former head curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas. "A whole generation is being denied a spiritual connection with their country that only art can provide."

Spearheading the artistic sleuthing is Marshall Billingslea, the assistant U.S. Treasury secretary for terrorist financing who has led the Trump administration's charge to sanction senior Venezuelan officials and prevent Maduro from raiding the nation's sizable oil assets abroad.

With the help of Vecchio, Billingslea has been compiling an inventory of all the artwork assigned to the diplomatic missions in the more than 50 countries that recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful leader. At the same time, he's sought the help of the Italian Carabinieri — which boasts the world's foremost art squad — and has asked international museum groups to be on the lookout for the potential looting of Venezuela's cultural heritage.

Billingslea, who President Donald Trump recently nominated to become the State Department's top human rights official, did not respond to a request for comment. His confirmation hearing is Thursday.

The endeavor harkens to World War II when the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Funds Control tracked Jewish-owned artwork stolen by the Nazis and used to get around an allied blockade. From that initiative was born the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which locates and freezes the assets of sanctioned individuals and businesses.

In the case of Venezuela, crippling U.S. financial sanctions are making it similarly hard for Maduro's government and well-connected insiders to access Western financial institutions. The oblique and unregulated art market is considered an ideal way to stash illegal proceeds from corruption that the opposition-controlled congress estimates reached a staggering $400 billion in recent years under socialist rule.

Maduro's culture minister, Ernesto Villegas, did not respond to a request for information about the status of the missing works or the opposition's allegations that they had been stolen.

Vecchio said 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 Venezuelan Embassy in 2012 showing the two paintings framing the doorway of an elegant salon.

A similar void of information exists around the many non-exhibited collections owned by state oil giant PDVSA as well as the Venezuelan central bank's trove of weaponry and memorabilia that belonged to South American independence hero Simón Bolivar.

"We don't know for sure that the artwork was stolen, but the official silence and censoring of information does make us wonder," Cardenas said.

Fitting the country's reputation as a petro state, past governments spent lavishly on artwork when the oil wells were gushing, much of it used to decorate Venezuela's embassies abroad. Hundreds more 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.

A New York-based art dealer said that in 2012 he toured the vaults of the agency's headquarters in downtown Caracas in the company of its vice president, who proposed unloading sculptures and paintings by well-known Spanish artists Baltasar Lobo and Manuel Valdes in exchange for kickbacks. The collection was commercially attractive but poorly cared for, with canvasses piling up on emergency stairwells and exposed to sunlight, said the dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from Venezuelan government officials. He showed The Associated Press photos on his cell phone of some of the works on offer.

Even in better times Venezuela was ripe for some high-stakes museum heists. A painting by the French artist Henri Matisse, "Odalisque in Red Pants," went missing around 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 Beach, but who was behind the theft, and exactly when it even took place, remains a mystery.

Today, the museum, which boasted the largest collection of contemporary art in Latin America when it was founded in the 1970s, is a shadow of its former glory. Galleries are mostly empty, security guards nowhere to be found and the artwork exposed to the tropical heat after the 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. For the museum's once loyal promoters, who were removed by Chávez in a cultural purge 18 years ago, it is a recent photo that went viral on social media of a bucket collecting water from a leaky gallery ceiling that best sums up the current state of neglect.

A few blocks away, at the century-old 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, although there's no sign any are taking place.

A museum employee loosened a thin, braided knot that was the only security for the shuttered and sweltering salons containing a collection of priceless Baroque paintings and delicate 18th-century etchings 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 about the museum's sorry state. 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 writers Andrea Hernández Briceno in Caracas, Pablo Martínez Monsiváis in Washington and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman

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