The AP has a fascinating story on the investigation of missing artworks that may have been taken from the Venezuelan ambassador’s residence in Washington. At present only three works are confirmed missing, but the piece hints that others might be missing as well. The uneasy economic and political situation in Venezuela may make conditions ripe for officials and others to make off with valuable state works. Carlos Vecchio, an exiled Venezuelan politician told the AP:
This is likely just the tip of the iceberg . . . . 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.
To borrow a tired phrase, art and the status of culture is so often a canary in the coal mine. The AP story notes that:
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.
Joshua Goodman, US helping Venezuela’s Guaido track stolen art, AP NEWS (Sept. 19, 2019), https://apnews.com/b19c195aca5445918e48142154dbc77c [https://perma.cc/YB23-3X42].