20 Sep 2019
AP — U.S. officials are investigating the suspected looting of valuable European and Latin American artwork they believe is being quietly plundered by Venezuelan government insiders as Nicolas Maduro struggles to maintain his grip on power.
The U.S. Treasury in recent months has sought the cooperation of the FBI, Italian police and museum experts to identify and locate the missing artwork. Among the objects being traced: three Venezuelan masterpieces that hung for decades on the walls of the ambassador’s stately residence in Washington but which were nowhere to be found when opposition leader Juan Guaido’s envoy took over the diplomatic mission in May.
Although the paintings are the only ones unaccounted for, there are fears many more could be missing as Venezuela’s dire economic situation takes its toll on the country’s once prized collections and financial sanctions target corrupt insiders who have long used art as a way to launder money.
“This is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” said Carlos Vecchio, an exiled politician who the U.S. recognizes as Venezuela’s ambassador. He pointed to a large empty wooden frame still hanging above the fireplace in the residence’s den where he believes one of the missing canvasses was ripped from the wall. “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.”
The missing mid-20th century paintings, which were last publicly exhibited at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington in 2008, are a landscape of Caracas’ imposing Avila mountain by Manuel Cabré, the portrait “Juanita” by Armando Reverón and a work of social realism by Héctor Poleo called “The Broken Doll.”
Together the three works are believed to be worth around $1 million, according to an appraisal ordered by Vecchio. But their true value is as icons of Venezuela’s cultural heritage — a patrimony that Venezuelan art experts fear could be lost amid the country’s ongoing chaos, much like thousands of ancient artifacts were looted from Afghanistan and Iraq during those countries’ recent wars.
“The moral damage is enormous,” said María Luz Cardenas, the former head curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas. “A whole generation is being denied a spiritual connection with their country that only art can provide.”
Spearheading the artistic sleuthing is Marshall Billingslea, the assistant U.S. Treasury secretary for terrorist financing who has led the Trump administration’s charge to sanction senior Venezuelan officials and prevent Maduro from raiding the nation’s sizable oil assets abroad.
With the help of Vecchio, Billingslea has been compiling an inventory of all the artwork assigned to the diplomatic missions in the more than 50 countries that recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader. At the same time, he’s sought the help of the Italian Carabinieri — which boasts the world’s foremost art squad — and has asked international museum groups to be on the lookout for the potential looting of Venezuela’s cultural heritage.
Billingslea, who President Donald Trump recently nominated to become the State Department’s top human rights official, did not respond to a request for comment. His confirmation hearing is Thursday.
The endeavor harkens to World War II when the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Funds Control tracked Jewish-owned artwork stolen by the Nazis and used to get around an allied blockade. From that initiative was born the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which locates and freezes the assets of sanctioned individuals and businesses.
In the case of Venezuela, crippling U.S. financial sanctions are making it similarly hard for Maduro’s government and well-connected insiders to access Western financial institutions. The oblique and unregulated art market is considered an ideal way to stash illegal proceeds from corruption that the opposition-controlled congress estimates reached a staggering $400 billion in recent years under socialist rule.
By Joshua Goodman, AP, 19 September 2019
Read more at the Associated Press
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