CARACAS, Venezuela — 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.”