The US authorities investigate the alleged theft of European and Latin American art that they believe is being looted by relatives of the Nicolás Maduro regime.
The US Treasury has requested in recent months the collaboration of the FBI, the Italian police and museum experts to identify and locate missing works of art. Among them are three Venezuelan masterpieces that decorated the walls of the residence of the Venezuelan ambassador to Washington for decades, but were not there when Ambassador Carlos Vecchio assumed the diplomatic mission of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in May.
Although the paintings are the only ones whose whereabouts are inexplicable, it is feared that many more may be missing while Venezuela’s pressing economic situation takes its toll on the country’s once precious collections and financial sanctions focus on corrupt officials who have used art for years as a mechanism to launder money.
“This is the tip of the iceberg”, said Ambassador Vecchio. He pointed to an empty wooden frame still hanging on a wall above the fireplace in the living room of the residence from which he believes one of the missing canvases was removed. “If they are doing this here you can imagine what they are doing in our country.”
The missing twentieth-century paintings, which were last exhibited at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington in 2008, are a landscape of the impressive Ávila in Caracas by Manuel Cabré, the portrait “Juanita” by Armando Reveron and a work of social realism by Héctor Poleo titled “The Broken Doll”.
Together they are valued at about one million dollars, according to an appraisal commissioned by Vecchio. But its true value is like icons of the cultural heritage of Venezuela, which art experts fear could be lost amid the chaos that the South American nation is going through, as happened with thousands of ancient artifacts that were looted from Afghanistan and Iraq during the war in recent years in those countries.
“The moral damage is enormous”, said María Luz Cárdenas, former senior curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas. “There is an entire generation that will not have memory because it is being denied a spiritual connection to its heritage that only art can provide.”
At the head of this artistic hunt is Marshall Billingslea, deputy secretary in the US Department of the Treasury, in charge of investigating the financing of terrorism that has led the Trump administration to sanction Venezuelan officials and prevent Maduro from looting the oil assets of the nation abroad.
With Vecchio’s help, Billingslea has been creating an inventory of all works of art assigned to diplomatic missions in the more than 50 countries that recognize Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. At the same time, he sought the help of the Carabineros de Italia, who have the most important art brigade in the world, and has asked international museum groups to be alert to the potential looting of Venezuelan cultural heritage.
Billingslea, recently nominated by President Donald Trump to the highest human rights position of the State Department, did not respond to a request for statements. His confirmation hearing was Thursday.
The effort reminds of World War II, when the Office of Foreign Fund Control of the Treasury Ministry tracked works of art owned by Jews stolen by the Nazis, used to evade an allied blockade. From that initiative, the Office of Foreign Assets Control was born, which locates and freezes the assets of sanctioned individuals and businesses.
In the case of Venezuela, the growing financial sanctions in the United States are similarly making it difficult for the Maduro regime and its relatives to have access to Western financial institutions. The art market, oblique and unregulated, is considered an ideal means to store illegal income from corruption that the opposition-controlled Congress estimates has reached $400 billion in recent years under the socialist regime.
Maduro’s Minister of Culture, Ernesto Villegas, did not respond to a request for information on the situation of the missing works or the allegations of the opposition that they have been stolen.
Vecchio said former embassy employees discreetly alerted opposition lawmakers a few years ago that works of art at the Washington residence were in danger. The last time they were seen was in a photo distributed by the Venezuelan Embassy in 2012, in which two paintings framed the entrance to an elegant hall.
A similar vacuum of information exists around the many unexposed collections owned by the state oil giant PDVSA, as well as the treasure trove of weapons, curiosities and collectibles at the Central Bank of Venezuela that belonged to the independence hero Simón Bolívar, the liberator of the nation.
“There is no reason to think they took it, but there is a silence around them, a censorship of information that makes us doubt where the masterpieces are”, said Cardenas.
Fitting with its reputation as an oil state, past governments generously spent on art when oil reserves overflowed, largely to decorate Venezuela’s embassies abroad. Hundreds of other prominent works were seized by the Bank Deposit Social Protection Fund to once promising institutions following the banking crisis of the 1990s.
But works of art were also abused in government institutions plagued by corruption.
A New York-based art dealer said that in 2012 he visited the vaults of the agency’s headquarters in downtown Caracas accompanied by his vice president, who proposed downloading sculptures and paintings by Spanish artists such as Baltasar Lobo and Manuel Valdés in exchange for bribes the collection was commercially attractive but poorly maintained, with canvases crowded on the emergency stairs and exposed to sunlight, said the merchant, 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 offered.
Even in better times, the museums of Venezuela were vulnerable to theft. A painting by French master Henri Matisse, “Odalisca with red pants”, disappeared about two decades ago from the Museum of Contemporary Art and was replaced by a fake. The original was discovered in 2012 in a hotel room in Miami and returned by the FBI to the Venezuelan 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 robbery, and exactly when it happened, remains a mystery.
Today the museum, which boasted that it had the largest collection of contemporary art in Latin America when it was founded in the 1970s, is a shadow of what it was. Its galleries are mostly empty, security guards are nowhere to be seen and the art, exposed to tropical heat after the breakdown of the air conditioning in the frequent blackouts that afflict the capital, suffered damage.
One of the highlights of the museum, a collection of 147 Picasso pieces, is no longer exhibited permanently, although it did have a brief appearance last year in a rare exhibition entitled “Comrade Picasso”, which highlighted the Spanish artist’s communist activism. For the once loyal promoters of the museum, who were fired by Chávez in a cultural purge 18 years ago, a recent photo that went viral on social networks, of a bucket collecting the dripping water from the roof of the museum, summarizes the state of current abandonment.
A few streets away, in the centennial Museum of Fine Arts, the situation is even more desperate. Only one third of its 18 galleries are open to the public; the rest have been closed for months for renovations, although it is not seen that they are remodeling anything.
A veteran employee loosened a thin knotted rope that was the only security for closed rooms where the heat was stifling, and where there is a collection of priceless baroque paintings and delicate engravings of the 18th century by Spanish master Francisco de Goya.
The museum employee recalled how when he began his work two decades ago there were 34 guide curators. Today, there are only two left.
Although he doesn’t know about stolen works, the collection is vulnerable. He said that a few months ago a Chinese businessman went to the museum every day to take pictures and that through a translator he offered large sums of money for an ancient Greek vase. It only disappeared when the staff withdrew the object of the exhibition.
“One night he could have stayed sleeping in the museum”, said the man with resignation. “One can imagine many things.”