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Man pleads innocent in art theft

By ByJAMES RYAN

LOS ANGELES -- An alleged con man suspected of stealing two master paintings worth at least $330,000 from an Australian dealer pleaded innocent to theft charges Tuesday following his extradition from Virginia.

Robert Leads, 56, arrested Jan. 29 in Newport News, Va., thanks to tips received after the case was featured on an episode of NBC's 'Unsolved Mysteries' last month, was flown to Los Angeles over the weekend after waiving extradition, police detective Bill Martin said.

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Leads pleaded innocent at his Municipal Court arraignment to two counts of grand theft. He was being held in lieu of $500,000 bail pending a bail review hearing Feb. 21.

A preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to bring Leads to trial was scheduled for Feb. 28.

The charges, which carry a maximum five-year sentence in state prison, stem from the theft of Auguste Renoir's 1916 'Anemones,' worth at least $200,000, and Mary Cassatt's 1904 'Head of a Girl,' worth at least $130,000.

The paintings were stolen in an elaborate scheme last year from Brian Pearce, a Melbourne, Australia, art dealer who had come to Los Angeles to sell the works.

While at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel with a Los Angeles art dealer, Pearce met Leads, who told him he could sell the two paintings, plus Henri Fantin-Latour's 1882 'Raisins Dans Une Coupe,' in 30 days, Martin said.

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Leads promised Pearce $560,000 for the paintings and, as a guarantee, gave him $500,000 worth of stock in his company, U.S. Corporate Careers Systems, Martin said.

At the end of the 30 days, Pearce found out the company was bogus and its stock worthless, and neither Leads nor the paintings could be found.

Martin, the department's specialist in art crimes, tracked the paintings through art community sources and found 'Anemones' in Beverly Hills. Leads had allegedly given it to a man as collateral in an unrelated fraud scheme.

Fantin-Latour's painting, which was worth about $250,000, was recovered from a local dealer not charged in the case. Charges were not filed against Leads in connection with that painting because detectives could not prove he ever had it in his possession, Martin said.

The Cassatt has not been recovered, Martin said, but investigators believe it may have been bought by a New York dealer for $45,000 and then sold elsewhere.

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