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Stolen Artwork


From stolen works fenced out of airport hangars to gallerists going undercover to nab the thieves, the Miami scene is a portrait of audacious art crimes

Ramón Cernuda works out of a glass-fronted gallery on Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables where, this season, his white walls display paintings in shades of emerald and ruby by a young artist he just discovered. As a respected Miami dealer in contemporary work, he’s seen a lot of art—great, bad and mediocre—and nurtured quite a few emerging talents. But 2014 marked a first for him. This spring, with a single phone call from his office, he personally uncovered a crime.

A few weeks prior, another Miami dealer had offered to sell Cernuda, who specializes in Cuban and Latin American art, a painting by the late Eduardo Abela, one of Cuba’s top 20th-century artists. Cernuda was immediately interested. The asking price was $15,000, well below the six-figure threshold at which Cernuda typically asks the seller to provide provenance—the art world’s version of title clearance. He forked over the cash, took possession and then commenced his own research.

To his surprise, Cernuda spotted his newest acquisition—Carnaval Infantil, a darkly jolly painting in yellow, black and ochre, of balloon-faced children playing musical instruments—in a book stating it belonged to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Cuba’s national art museum some 230 miles away. When he called Havana to inquire about when the museum had sold it, the startled director said the painting was still very much museum property. She asked for 24 hours to investigate. A day later the assistant director called to say the Abela was missing from the warehouse, along with around 80 other works by prominent Cuban artists. Many had been sliced out of their frames, and the frames left on the racks, so no one had noticed their absence.

At that point, the dapper, white-haired gallerist was left with only one choice: turn the painting over to American authorities or become an accessory to a crime.

The global art and antiques market is a $66 billion industry. Law enforcement agents say that art comes on the market through “the five D’s” – death, debt, disaster, disease, divorce. More and more, they include a sixth “D,” for deception. Stealing—and then fencing—the art is only one part of the equation. The FBI believe that a full 40 percent of today’s market is made up of fakes, illicit copies passed off as real.

These thefts and forgeries have always plagued the sophisticated art markets of London, New York City and Los Angeles. In recent years, South Florida, home of the increasingly popular Art Basel Miami Beach, joined the club—with a bang.

Conditions were ripe. Because of its position as a north-south continental crossroads and a great port city, Miami has been a center for fencing all manner of illicit cargo, from guns and computers to cocaine. On any given day, there is a large group of FBI agents and other law enforcement tracking down stolen-goods transactions in Miami, says one agent.

Smuggled, stolen bits of pricey cultural heritage often arrive in South Florida via the MIA airport cargo building. Authorities have confiscated hundreds of pieces of pre-Columbian art and jewelry heisted from Latin America, priceless pieces of Egyptian antiquity (including a whole sarcophagus) along with stolen works by European masters. The FBI arrested a Frenchman, Bernard Ternus, who with four accomplices had heisted four paintings by Monet, Sisley and Brueghel from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nice. The FBI nabbed Ternus after he came to Miami to try to fence his treasures.

Police patrolling in the night

Police patrolling in the night

Why Miami? Interviews with dealers and FBI agents say the city is a particularly fertile ground for art fraud because of a transitory population, newly minted millionaires eager to build collections and an underworld populated by middlemen skilled in the art of the fence. “The conditions are good for people to make lots and lots of money here,” a law-enforcement source told me. “There’s a lot of meat on the bone.”

Last year, Art Basel Miami Beach drew some 50,000 curators, artists, dealers and art lovers—and millions of dollars—during what’s called “the season,” roughly December through February. Under the tropical winter sun, beautiful people and the international art set flock down to view, buy and sell mostly contemporary, Pop and graffiti works, and stroll the colorful garages and low warehouses of Wynwood—the arts district recently carved out of the ghetto known as Overtown. Pulling in right behind this chic set, like sharks to chum, are shady dealers looking to fence stolen art and forgeries to gulls with loads of new money to blow.

NEXT: “They’re our wine-and-cheese guys.”

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