In the early morning of Aug. 29, a Cessna corporate jet from Santiago, Chile, touched down at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport.
One of the passengers was Dr. Alfred Bonati, owner of a Pasco County spine clinic. Another was John McInnis III, scion of a well-known Alabama road and bridge building family.
The pair quickly drew attention.
As they made their way across the tarmac, a U.S. Customs Service agent saw that McInnis had a gun at his waist. Bonati carried a painting loosely covered in fabric.
And it wasn't just any painting. It was titled The Ballerina, and Bonati said it was the work of the great French artist Edgar Degas.
Bonati said the painting had been in his family more than 100 years. He planned to take it on to New York where he had an appointment Nov. 4 at Sotheby's, the international auction house, to have it evaluated by a Degas expert flown in from Paris.
But customs seized The Ballerina. Bonati hired the Miami law firm of Diaz, Reus & Targ to get it back. And, the firm claims, to help him bring in 26 other paintings, purportedly by such masters as Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Picasso, worth, by Bonati's estimate, more than $1 billion.
What started as a lawyer-client relationship based on beautiful art has degenerated into an ugly dispute over fees. It gives a glimpse into the high-stakes world of art authentication — a world in which expert opinion can mean a painting is worth a few hundred dollars. Or many millions.
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Edgar Degas is often called a founder of impressionism, the revolutionary 19th century art movement known for paintings with quick brushstrokes and bright colors. But he and others thought the impressionist label too limiting for a man of his prodigious talents.
"The artist Renoir considered Degas the best living sculptor,'' notes Joseph S. Czestochowski, an expert on Degas who helped with the exhibit "Degas: Form, Movement and the Antique,'' opening Saturday at the Tampa Museum of Art.
The exhibit, which includes paintings, drawings and sculptures, reflects the tremendous range and number of works Degas produced by his death in 1917. Among his most popular subjects were ballerinas.
In 2008, Danseuse au Repos, a Degas pastel of a ballerina stretching on the floor, sold for $37 million, a record for the artist. It is among the 1,700 Degas paintings that have been identified and catalogued.
So "the existence of a heretofore unknown Degas, in the possession of a wealthy Chilean family, was extraordinary,'' the Diaz, Reus & Targ law firm said in a recent court filing.
Joaquin Pacareu Gay, an antiques dealer in Santiago, Chile, met Bonati 10 years ago when the Pasco surgeon came into his shop.
Pacareu said Bonati's grandfather acquired The Ballerina decades ago while traveling around Europe. Along with works by South American artists, the painting hung in Bonati's 22nd-floor Santiago condominium until Feb. 27, 2010, when a devastating earthquake knocked it off the wall.
"It is the jewel of the collection,'' said Pacareu, who repaired the painting's damaged frame.
The 71-year-old Bonati, who didn't respond to several calls for comment, founded the Bonati Institute in Hudson, where thousands of patients have undergone minimally invasive spinal surgery since 1981.
Though many people say they have been helped, Bonati has been the target of malpractice suits and was put on probation in 2002 for two years in a case involving a dozen patients. He currently faces a complaint by the Florida Department of Health, alleging he misdiagnosed the cause of a patient's pain.
In August, a pleasantly cool month in Chile, Bonati was in Santiago, where he and McInnis boarded the chartered, nine-seat Cessna. The plane refueled in Ecuador and landed in Fort Lauderdale after the 4,000-mile flight.
As the men headed for the terminal, they drew suspicion because of what the law firm later called their "bizarre'' conduct.
"Bonati carried the multi-million dollar painting in his arms as the pair made their way across the tarmac . . . while McInnis walked alongside with a gun holstered at his waist,'' the firm said in a court filing.
"Bonati was also carrying in excess of $10,000 in cash on his person, a sum which he did not declare to U.S. Customs as required by law.''
Anyone taking more than $10,000 in currency into or out of the country must file a report with customs.
Paintings and other original works of art also must be declared, though most are allowed to enter the United States duty-free. But with art theft a major international problem, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up efforts to ascertain the ownership of potentially valuable works.
In January, the agency returned to France a Degas painting stolen from a museum there in 1973. It resurfaced last fall in the catalog of a Sotheby's auction in New York.
That episode "shows why we take an interest in these kind of cases and if it is stolen, returning it to its rightful owner,'' says Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokeswoman.
Within a day of the The Ballerina's seizure, Bonati hired Diaz, Reus & Targ to get it released. He agreed, the firm says, to pay $90,000 plus a $150,000 bonus if the painting cleared customs by Oct. 1.
While lawyers negotiated The Ballerina's release, the firm says, Bonati and John E. Harris Jr., who is in the aviation business, sprang a surprise: They said they "possessed numerous other rare and valuable paintings'' by such masters as Goya, Raphael and Van Dyck that they wanted to bring into the United States.
The law firm said that as further inducement to free The Ballerina, the men promised to pay a $1 million retainer for the firm's help in transporting the other paintings and clearing them through customs once the Degas had been authenticated.
On Oct. 25, customs released The Ballerina — to the law firm. A dispute erupted almost immediately when Bonati tried to cancel the $1 million retainer agreement.
With just days left before the painting was due at Sotheby's, where "private collectors were eagerly awaiting its arrival,'' Bonati said, he sued the law firm. He said it had refused to release the painting or honor his request to terminate the $1 million agreement.
"Due to the value of The Ballerina, extraordinary arrangements have been made, at great expense, for insurance, storage, transportation and preparation for authentication requiring the piece to be released to Plaintiff on or before Oct. 29, 2010,'' Bonati said. Otherwise, he said in his lawsuit, he would suffer "irreparable harm.''
A judge ordered the law firm to turn over The Ballerina by Nov. 1, on the condition Bonati post a $1 million bond with the court. According to firm's countersuit against Bonati, the painting actually was released to him on or about Nov. 4 — the day it was supposed to be in New York.
The law firm claims Bonati and Harris made it impossible to meet the original Oct. 1 deadline for The Ballerina's release, thus costing the firm the $150,000 bonus. Not until after Oct. 1, the firm says, was it allowed access to a Bonati relative in Santiago who could attest that the painting had been in the family for years.
The law firm also claims that Bonati, Harris and others never intended to pay the $1 million retainer. Instead, it says, they were using the The Ballerina as a "dry run,'' trying to tap the firm's knowledge and contacts so they could bring in the other 26 paintings themselves without the firm's help.
In talking to the firm's private investigator, "Bonati and Harris proposed outlandish, unconventional and surreptitious methods of transporting these precious artworks from Chile to the United States, including suggestions such as … transporting them into the U.S. through the Bahamas in order to circumvent more stringent Custom's in-country inspection standards,'' the law firm says in its countersuit, filed last month in Miami-Dade circuit court.
Named as co-defendants are Harris; McInnis, who has a construction-related company in Gulf Shores, Ala.; Cameron Price, a West Point graduate who works for McInnis; and David Neely, a pilot who sometimes flies for Bonati.
The law firm says all four had agreed to "participate in and fund financially the larger scale scheme to bring the other paintings into the United States for appraisal, evaluation and potential sale.''
Neely said he was not the pilot on Aug. 29, has never been to Santiago and knows nothing about the paintings. McInnis did not return calls, and Price and Harris wouldn't comment.
Is The Ballerina really the work of a master?
Bonati will not comment on the case, his lawyer, Johanna Kamerman, said. The surgeon unsuccessfully sued the St. Petersburg Times for libel in 1992.
Sotheby's would not say if the painting ever arrived there or if was ever authenticated.
In his suit, Bonati said he had made arrangements "at great expense'' for a representative of Brame & Lorenceau, one of the world's foremost Degas experts, to attend the Nov. 4 appraisal session in New York.
Francois Lorenceau recalls that someone from his gallery did go to New York. "The work was not available for some reason,'' he said in a phone interview, "but I don't remember exactly what the outcome was.''
The gallery, which has worked with the world's leading art museums, evaluates about 40 works a year that purportedly are by Degas. Two-thirds turn out to be "non-authentic,'' as Lorenceau put it.
With Degas drawings, of which the artist produced a few thousand, it is not uncommon for a previously unknown original to surface, Lorenceau said. More unusual are unknown paintings "because the corpus is not as big, it does represent a lot of money and there are a lot of people who scrutinize what could be Degas.''
If The Ballerina is a true Degas, would it generate much buzz in the art world?
"It would, if it was a major thing,'' Lorenceau said. "If it's a large painting, or a large pastel representing three ballerinas and the master of the ballet with special light on the scene, then it would certainly be an event.''
Czestochowski, the expert on Degas sculptures, says demand for the artist's work has stayed strong despite the poor economy. In 2009, a Degas sculpture of a young dancer sold for $18.8 million, twice what the seller paid in 2004.
Degas is admired "because the subject matter is readily engageable with the public,'' Czestochowski said. "The horses, the dancers, they are things children can relate to. I think that's part of the enduring quality.''
Times staff writer Marilyn Garateix and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org