West Virginia Man Arrested in Scheme to Sell Stolen Paintings Valued at $500 Million

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BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS (WOWK) – A Beckley man was arrested Monday on fraud charges in connection with his scheme to sell paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 on Craigslist.

Todd Andrew Desper, a/k/a “Mordokwan,” 47, was charged in federal court in Boston with wire fraud and attempted wire fraud.  Desper was arrested this afternoon at his home in Beckley. 

He will be held in custody overnight and will have an initial appearance in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia tomorrow morning.  He will appear in federal court in the District of Massachusetts on June 9, 2017.   

According to the criminal complaint, Desper, acting under the pseudonym “Mordokwan,” solicited buyers for both the Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert on Craigslist in a number of foreign cities including Venice and London.  Desper directed interested buyers to create an encrypted email account to communicate with him. 

Authorities were notified of the foreign Craigslist notices by individuals seeking to assist in the recovery of the artwork, as well as those seeking the $5 million reward offered by the Museum.

At the direction of federal authorities, the security director for the Gardner Museum engaged in encrypted communications with Desper in an attempt to determine whether Desper had access to the stolen masterpieces.  Desper allegedly instructed him to send a cashier’s check for  $5 million to a location in West Virginia and that Storm on the Sea of Galilee would then be sent in return, concealed behind another painting. 

It is alleged that the investigation ultimately revealed that Desper had no access to, nor information about, the stolen paintings, but was instead engaged in a multi-million dollar fraud scheme targeting foreign art buyers. 

The charging statute provides for a sentence of no greater than 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine up to $250,000.  Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

On March 18, 1990, 13 pieces of artwork were stolen from The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in the early morning hours.  According to security guards, two white males dressed in Boston Police uniforms gained entrance to the Gardner Museum by explaining that they were responding to a report of a disturbance within the museum compound. 

Upon entry, the thieves subdued and secured the guards and went on to commit the largest art theft in history, taking 13 works of art including Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert.  The combined value of the art stolen during the Gardner theft is estimated at $500 million, although several of the works are considered priceless within the art community.

Acting United States Attorney William D. Weinreb and Harold H. Shaw, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Field Division, made the announcement today.  Assistance was provided the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia, the FBI Pittsburgh Field Division, and Beckley Police Department.  The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney John T. McNeil of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division.

The investigation is ongoing. 

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