Stolen Matisse painting to be returned to Caracas

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A painting by Henri Matisse stolen more than a decade ago from a museum in Venezuela will soon be returned to the country, officials said Friday.

The painting, "Odalisque in Red Pants," is to be returned from the United States within three to five weeks, said Raul Grioni, president of Venezuela's Cultural Patrimony Institute.

Grioni told The Associated Press that the painting will arrive at the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art once officials complete necessary requirements to ship it and verify its authenticity.

Venezuelan authorities say the 1925 painting, which is valued at about $3 million, was stolen from the Caracas museum in 2000.

It was found in July when a couple tried to sell it to undercover FBI agents at a hotel in Miami Beach. The two were sentenced last month in U.S. federal court in Miami for attempting to sell the stolen work.

Cuban Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman of Miami was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison, and Mexican Maria Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo was sentenced to one year and nine months. Both pleaded guilty to the charges in October.

Court records show that FBI agents and an informant posing as art dealers were negotiating with Marcuello for the sale of the painting for $740,000 in Miami last year. Prosecutors said Ornelas brought the painting to Miami from Mexico City.

Grioni said the U.S. State Department contacted Venezuelan officials to begin the process of returning the Matisse painting after the trial concluded.

Venezuelan prosecutors say the painting was stolen from the museum in 2000. It was discovered to be missing in 2002 after Venezuelan collector Genaro Ambrosino sent an email to various people expressing surprise and outrage that the work had been put up for sale in Miami.

The authorities then detected that the original work had been swapped and replaced with a copy.

The U.S. government recently asked Venezuela for documents proving that it owns the painting and that it hasn't received any insurance payment, and the foreign ministry will provide those documents soon, Grioni said.

Venezuelan officials also plan to hire a French expert to travel to Miami and help confirm the painting's authenticity, he said. He said government officials believe it is the painting "but we want to take precautions."

When the painting was transported out of the country remains a mystery, and Grioni said Venezuelan officials plan to ask U.S. authorities to assist with their investigation.

He said the country is taking precautions to prevent similar thefts.

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