The adverts began appearing on Craigslist six months ago, in London, Venice and Egypt. A shadow seller, calling himself Mordokwan, offered two of the most valuable masterpieces stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
The asking price? $50 million for Vermeer’s “The Concert” and $5 million for Rembrandt’s seascape alone, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”
There was a small hitch. In his listings, Mordokwan said he would never meet. Buyers would only have to trust him that he had the stolen masterpieces and, in “good faith”, send a cashier’s check for the full amount to an address in West Virginia. Then it would only be a matter of time before the paintings arrived in the mail.
Some were suspicious, however, and informed the FBI and the Gardner Museum of the advertisements. On Monday, the FBI arrested the man who allegedly posted them, Todd Andrew Desper, 47, for wire fraud and attempted wire fraud.
Desper, a West Virginia man who authorities say has no connection or access to the paintings, will make his first appearance in West Virginia federal court on Tuesday morning, according to the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office. Desper will appear in federal court in Boston on June 9. His lawyer could not be reached for comment.
According to the affidavit, unsealed on Monday, a tipster on Jan. 18 forwarded email correspondence with Desper to Anthony Amore, the museum’s chief security officer.
The tipster had contacted Desper, posing as a broker for a potential buyer in Florida, described as an “ex-Russian politician”.
“I [understand] on your side, be extremely careful and I don’t want you to compromise that, in the end, I want the sales commission. . . for me, that means retirement,” the tipster wrote.
Desper replied that “for several obvious reasons, I do not meet and never will meet [sic]. The transaction must be made in good faith.
After receiving the correspondence, Amore created an encrypted email account to write Desper.
“Let’s make a deal,” Amore wrote, according to the affidavit. “I’m able to make it work and I’m ready to get to work. Come back to me as soon as possible. »
Desper asked Amore to send a check for $5 million made out to 10tothe7th LLC to an address in Beckley, W. Va. When Amore asked if “The Storm” was the same painting stolen from the Gardner Museum , Desper replied, “The one and only,” according to the records.
Documents in West Virginia indicate that Desper is the sole officer of 10tothe7th, a company located at his residential address, the affidavit states.
Desper told FBI agents in January that he started the company to raise money for veterans and abused animals. He declined to tell officers whether he had used Craigslist to sell stolen paintings and claimed to have no knowledge of a theft from a Boston museum, according to the affidavit.
The West Virginia man was attempting to commit other scams on Craigslist, authorities said.
He has other big-ticket items up for sale, including “Flash Comics #1, Ashcan Edition” for $2.5 million and a “1799 Draped Bust Dollar” for $250,000, according to the affidavit.
In March 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers broke into the Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, tied up the two guards, and removed and cut valuable artwork from their frames.
They stole 13 plays, including “Tempest on the Sea of Galilee” and “Le Concert”, as well as works by Flinck, Manet and Degas. The paintings are still missing.
Shelley Murphy can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. Travis Andersen can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.