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L.A. Renoir Paints the Way to Recovery of Stolen Rembrandt

Times Staff Writer

The last of three valuable paintings stolen from a Swedish museum nearly five years ago was recovered Thursday in Copenhagen when an FBI agent posing as a buyer offered to purchase the Rembrandt self-portrait.

The recovery was the latest installment in a saga with all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster, and on Friday, it turned out to have an L.A. connection.

The crime that set the tale in motion occurred Dec. 22, 2000, when three men with machine guns stormed the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm, grabbed the Rembrandt and two paintings by Renoir, and made an elaborate getaway that included tossing spikes on the road, blowing up parked cars and zipping away on a speedboat with a haul estimated by the FBI to be worth about $45 million.

A multinational investigation followed, and Stockholm police quickly retrieved one of the paintings, Renoir’s “Conversation.” But then the trail went cold -- until this year, when an FBI unit investigating a Eurasian crime syndicate came across the second Renoir, “Young Parisian,” in Los Angeles.

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That recovery led the FBI and a host of local, national and international law enforcement agencies to track down the Rembrandt self-portrait and mount a sting operation in a Copenhagen hotel.

The suspects, four Swedish residents who have been arrested and are awaiting indictment, were asking for half a million dollars, according to the FBI, a fraction of the painting’s estimated $36-million value.

The Renoir arrived here through Los Angeles International Airport about two years ago, according to J.P. Weis, special agent in charge of the FBI’s L.A. office, who spoke alongside representatives of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies at a news conference Friday in the Federal Building in Westwood.

Nearby, an easel displayed the recovered Renoir, featuring a small scratch above the subject’s ear -- superficial damage to the painting’s varnish that authorities said could easily be fixed.

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The representatives of the agencies involved declined to address most details of the local recovery, citing an ongoing investigation into an organized crime ring.

It is not unusual for stolen artwork to become caught up in other illegal activities, said Sheriff’s Capt. Stephen Johnson.

“It’s often used as collateral for various kinds of illegal transactions,” he said. Stolen art this famous and expensive is essentially unsalable, said Scott Schaefer, curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, who was in charge of authenticating the Renoir and was also at the news conference.

But if the illicit owner is intent on selling, he said, Los Angeles is a good locale in which to make an attempt.

“There are both private and public investors here who are big buyers,” Schaeffer said.


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