Paintings offered as payoff in drug scheme

July 18, 2002 at 2:33 PM
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MIAMI, July 18 (UPI) -- Federal agents have arrested one suspect and were looking worldwide Thursday for three more in a drug scheme in which two paintings by Spanish master Francisco de Goya and impressionist Tsuguhanu Foujita were offered as payment for 4,400 pounds of cocaine.

The paintings were Goya's 1793 El Atraco a La Diligencia and Foujita's 1926 Buste de Jeune Femme. They are believed to be worth $1 million each, and Drug Enforcement Administration agents said they will ask a judge for permission to auction them off.

They were confiscated in a New York art warehouse, but an art dealer in Barcelona, Spain, who has not been charged, said she owns the works of art.

Among those charged with offering the paintings for payment was Doris Mangeri Salazar of Coral Gables, Fla. She was arrested Tuesday, hiding in a bedroom closet at her home.

Still wanted on the indictments are:

-- Nayef Bin Sultan Bin Fawwaz Al-Shaalan, described in the indictment as a Saudi prince but dismissed as non-royalty by the Saudi Embassy in Washington. He is believed to be in Saudi Arabia.

-- Spanish art collector Jose Maria Clemente, who is believed to be in Switzerland.

-- Ivan Lopez Vanegas, whose last known residence is a condominium in Miami's financial district.

All are charged with drug trafficking, and Clemente faces additional charges of money laundering.

An affidavit signed by DEA agent Anthony Angell said Al-Shaalan offered to transport drugs for Colombian drug traffickers and a deal was struck. The Colombians had already become DEA informants in an effort to reduce sentences on previous charges and the agency was told of the deal.

The cocaine was shipped to Paris and much of it reached the street. But law enforcement officers seized 1,768 pounds in a Paris suburb and an additional 418 pounds in Spain.

The cocaine lost in the seizures meant there wasn't enough money left to pay the Colombians for the drugs, and the suspects tried to use the paintings as payment, Angell said in the affidavit. The paintings were then confiscated.

Barcelona art dealer Helena de Saro has sued the DEA in New York federal court, saying the United States took her paintings illegally.

She said she bought the paintings in 1989 and 1990 and stored them in Switzerland until last year. The paintings were sent to New York for sale in September and then trucked to south Florida when the sale seemed imminent.

The sale didn't close and the paintings were returned to New York where they were confiscated a few days later.

In 1996, de Saro claimed part ownership of a Salvador Dali self-portrait that U.S. Customs said was purchased by a drug smuggler with illegal profits. It was auctioned off for $111,000. The drug trafficker was never identified.

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