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Pair plead not guilty to mysterious Matisse painting heist

MIAMI (AFP) – A Cuban American man and a Mexican woman pleaded not guilty in Miami on Wednesday to trying to sell a $3 million Matisse that vanished mysteriously from a Venezuelan museum a decade ago.

Marcuello Guzman, a 46-year-old Cuban resident of Miami, and Ornelas Lazo, a 50-year-old from Mexico City, denied in court that they conspired to transport and sell the original Matisse, Odalisque in Red Pants.

Venezuelan authorities realized in 2003 that the painting hanging in the Museum of Contemporary Art in the capital Caracas was actually a fake. The exact date of the theft is unknown, though December 2002 has been suggested.

The indictment accuses Guzman of negotiating the sale of the Matisse for approximately $740,000 during several meetings with undercover FBI agents. Experts have valued the painting at $3 million.

Undercover FBI agents posing as buyers recovered the Matisse last month in Miami and arrested the two suspects, who appeared at Wednesday’s federal court hearing in handcuffs and leg shackles.

A new hearing will be set within 30 days. If convicted, each accused faces a possible maximum sentence of up to 10 years in jail.

Prosecutors have said Guzman admitted to undercover agents during a meeting that the 1925 painting had been stolen and arranged to have it delivered to the United States from Mexico as part of the deal.

Lazo allegedly acted as the courier, transporting the painting to Miami from Mexico City. Upon presentation of the work to the agents on July 17, the pair were arrested, the indictment said.

The museum of contemporary art in Caracas had acquired the painting in 1981 from the Marlborough Gallery in New York for nearly half a million dollars. It went on loan briefly to a Spanish exhibition in 1997.

Agents from the international police organization Interpol, the FBI and Venezuelan, British, Spanish and French police struggled to find any trace of the painting for almost 10 years.

Miami has grown into a dynamic art market, especially for contemporary works, in part thanks to the annual Art Basel show that attracts some of the most prominent buyers and art galleries in the world.