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Paintings fall back into safe hands

The suspects' inexperience showed when they tried to sell the French paintings.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 13, 2003

When two French masterworks worth $7-million vanished from a beachfront mansion in Naples six weeks ago, speculation in the town's arts community centered on two scenarios:

The thieves were pros who already had a buyer for the Monet and the Renoir. Or they were two-bit burglars who had stumbled into something bigger and richer than they could handle.

It turned out to be the latter.

On Wednesday, police announced they had arrested three Miami men on charges of trying to sell the two impressionistic landscapes to undercover officers for a total of $1-million.

The recovery was unusually quick for a major art theft, and it highlighted the thieves' inexperience and naivete about dumping high-end art.

They had only come to steal some watches and jewelry.

"There is this romantic image that people have. You say 'professional art thieves,' and people think Pierce Brosnan and Cary Grant and all these wonderful images we have from the media, from books and movies," said Anna Kisluk, director of art services at The Art Loss Register, which tracks and recovers stolen art.

"But most of the time, they are generally not sophisticated. They are thieves first, and they happen to steal art."

Rigoberto Gonzalez, 32, and Fernando Alfaro, 46, whom police described as jewel thieves, were arrested Tuesday and charged with dealing in stolen art, police said. So was Carlos Somuano, 35, whom police described as a fence.

Gonzalez was ordered held on $1-million bail while the others were released after posting $35,000 bail. More charges are pending, police said.

When they were taken, Monet's Vetheuil, vu de l'ile Saint-Martin, and Renoir's Place de la Trinite were displayed together in the 20,000-square-foot waterfront home of Lee and Katherine Anderson in Naples.

Mr. Anderson, 63, is chairman of the APi Group Inc., a private Minnesota holding company. The theft occurred late Dec. 28 while the Andersons' daughter and her family were staying at the home.

Naples police Chief Steven C. Moore said the alarm system wasn't on, but the thieves were startled by the family returning home for dinner. The men had come looking for jewelry, but saw the paintings on their way out and took them as they fled, he said. They also took six watches.

The thieves didn't realize the value of the paintings until seeing news accounts of the theft. And once they had them, they apparently had no idea what to do next, Moore said.

"These were just professional burglars who got lucky," Moore said. "Temporarily got lucky."

Last week, a Miami probation officer called Naples police to report he had gotten a tip that Gonzalez and Alfaro were trying to sell the paintings and watches in South Florida.

Using cash from the Anderson's insurer, a Miami-Dade officer posing as a local bookie first met one of the men at a Miami diner, where he bought one of the stolen watches -- an $8,000 Badet -- for $2,000.

He was driving a Lotus and wearing lots of flashy jewelry, and the police report states that Gonzalez "was very enthusiastic about the new relationship with (officer), who he believed to be 'loaded."'

The two met again Monday near the Flagler Dog Track, where Gonzalez first asked about selling two expensive paintings, according to a police report. The faux bookie told him he didn't know art, but he had a friend -- a millionaire Romanian businessman and a penchant for fine art.

The businessman was actually a private investigator working for the Anderson's insurance company. Another Miami-Dade officer played his chauffeur and bodyguard.

The buy was supposed to happen Monday, but Gonzalez got nervous and canceled. They rescheduled for the next day at a hotel, where Alfaro and Somuano joined him with the paintings.

The men were arrested at the scene.

The paintings are on their way back to Naples.

The Andersons did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday, but news of the recovery was welcomed in Naples, which boasts more than 60 galleries.

William Meek, owner of Harmon Meek Gallery, Naples' oldest, said he spoke with Lee Anderson at a recent fundraiser, and he told him his family was devasted by the loss of the paintings.

According to Sotheby's, the Renoir was sold at Christie's auction house in New York in May 2001 for $2,756,000. It now has an estimated value of about $3-million. The auction house had no record of the public sale of the Monet, though it is valued at $4-million.

"Money is one thing, but the loss of a work of art ... is not really replaceable," Meek said. "I quite honestly didn't think they'd ever find them."

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