Undercover federal agents arrested two people in a Miami hotel over the summer after the couple tried to sell a stolen Matisse painting. The painting, originally from a Venezuelan museum, is estimated to be worth $3 million. Last week, the couple pleaded guilty in a Miami federal court, admitting to conspiracy charges.
This case illustrates the differences between conspiracy, attempt and a completed crime. It also demonstrates the nearly unlimited resources that prosecutors can bring to investigating federal crimes.
The Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art reported a stolen Matisse painting in 2002 after another collector warned the museum that a broker was trying to sell the same painting in the United States. Investigators tracked the painting to two Mexican nationals who were visiting Miami. These two defendants made a deal with the agents to sell the Matisse for $740,000. After one of the defendants flew the painting to Miami from Mexico and delivered it to the apparent buyer, the agents arrested them.
It is illegal to sell or transport stolen property. In this case, however, the defendants pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to sell and transport the property. This illustrates an important point of criminal law that appears in many cases involving more than one defendant.
When the authorities charge a defendant with conspiracy, they are essentially saying that the defendant made an agreement with another person to do something illegal. As we have mentioned in the past, the criminal act is the agreement itself. This means that prosecutors do not have to show that the defendant actually completed the crime or even attempted it. It is enough to point to an agreement and some act taken to put the plan into motion.
In this case, it was probably enough for the government to show that the defendants agreed to transport the painting to the undercover agent and that they made plans to put the painting on a plane.
Conspiracy charges also raise the stakes for defendants in another way. Because conspiracy is a separate crime, defendants can face charges for a complete crime and conspiracy at the same time. This can result in more penalties and longer sentences.
Source: Reuters, "Two plead guilty in Miami to trying to sell stolen Matisse," Oct. 31, 2012