December 19, 2014 / 9:29 PM / 4 years ago

Overseas tip led FBI to recover stolen art worth up to $24 million

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - An overseas tip investigators received six years after one of the biggest art heists in Los Angeles led to the return of nine stolen paintings, including works by Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera, collectively worth as much as $24 million, police and FBI said on Friday.

Recovered paintings are pictured during a news conference at FBI Headquarters in Los Angeles, California December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The paintings were recovered in an FBI sting operation in which a suspect, Raul Espinoza, 45, was arrested after he tried to sell the stolen artwork to undercover agents at a Los Angeles-area hotel in October for $700,000, authorities said.

Espinoza was charged with receiving stolen property and more suspects are being sought, investigators said at a news conference where they disclosed new details of the case and displayed the artwork. Espinoza has pleaded not guilty and is still in custody.

The nine paintings were part of the private collection of an elderly Los Angeles couple who have since died. They were home when the paintings were snatched in August 2008 but were bedridden and unaware of the theft at the time, police said.

Los Angeles Police Detective Donald Hrycyk said the daytime burglary occurred during a short but unspecified “window of opportunity” when the couple, who were under round-the-clock care, were presumably left unattended. The Los Angeles Times has reported the theft occurred while a housekeeper was out shopping for groceries.

Hrycyk said three additional art works believed to have been stolen from the home were still missing.

A $200,000 reward was offered months after the heist, but the case grew cold until September 2014, when investigators received an overseas tip that led them to Espinoza and arrangement of the sting operation, the FBI and police said.

The Times reported the tip pointed police to a man in Europe known as “Darko” who was soliciting buyers for the stolen art.

The FBI has since posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of others involved.

Among the pieces recovered were the Chagall painting “Les Paysans” and Rivera’s “Mexican Peasant.” Except for the Chagall, dated from about 1976, all the works date from the first half of the 20th century.

The nine paintings were collectively appraised at $13.6 million to $24 million and rank as the most valuable art collection stolen in Los Angeles “in recent history,” comparable to the theft of a dozen Andy Warhol works from a private home in September 2009, Hrycyk said. Those portraits have yet to be recovered, he said.

(This story corrects to fix first name of defendant to Raul, not Paul, in paragraph 2)

Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Grebler

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