French Authorities, FBI Raid Art Museum in Old San Juan

Apr 12, 2023
12:48 PM

Home of the Michele Vasarely Foundation in the historic Colegio de Párvulos on Calle San Sebastián in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Courtesy of Michele Vasarely Foundation)

SAN JUAN — French authorities, with the help of the FBI, raided the offices of the Michèle Vasarely Foundation in Old San Juan on Tuesday. The raid reportedly concerned the whereabouts of $40 million worth of art created by Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely, according to local newspapers.

The Michèle Vasarely Foundation, located at the historic Colegio de Párvulos in Old San Juan, served to preserve the works of Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely and his son Jean Pierra, also known as Yvaral. The more than 100 pieces of art reportedly seized by authorities were owned by Michèle Taburno Vasarely, Yvaral’s second wife, who has lived in Puerto Rico for a little over a decade.

Limary Cruz Rubio, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), did not comment on the details of the investigation, but did confirm the FBI was aiding French authorities in the seizure. The raid was carried out under the order of a French judge, with assistance from the FBI, according to Agence France-Presse.

Taburno Varasely was granted an Act 22 decree in late 2013, which allowed her to pay no income taxes as a resident of Puerto Rico. She is part of a growing cadre of Act 22 grantees who have been entangled with authorities, including Salil Zaveri, who killed a dog while playing golf at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Resort in Río Grande in 2021, and Raheel Naviwala, a former Florida resident charged for his involvement in a $101 million durable medical equipment kickback scheme.

Victor Vasarely is considered by many to be the “grandfather” of optical art, after painting his seminal work Zebras in 1937.

The remains of Vasarely’s and Yvaral’s art have long been embroiled in a legal battle between Taburno Visarely and Pierre, Yvaral’s son from his first marriage, who both have made claims to hundreds of works of art. Pierre has managed the Vasarely Foundation, headquartered in Aix-en Provence in southern France, alongside his two sons since 2009.

The Colegio de Párvulos was bought in 2016 and later remodeled by Taburno Vasarely as a new home for the foundation.

Pierre claims that a total of 600 works were shipped to Puerto Rico around 2012, according to The Art Newspaper. Taburno Vasarely had at least 200 pieces of art in her possession, according to an inventory done in Chicago as part of a lawsuit against her.

During the raid, the FBI reportedly loaded more than 100 works of art into their vans.

“What I wish is for my stepmother to execute the judiciary ruling,” Pierre told The Art Newspaper in late 2022. “It is not me; it’s not anyone else; it’s the French justice system, who are asking a French person who lives abroad to return expert works to France.”

Taburno Vasarely was arrested in 2008 in Chicago while attempting to move Vasarely paintings from a storage facility. She moved to the city in 2004 with her business partner Luis Rojas Buscaglia. At the time, the works of art were repatriated to France.

Rojas Buscaglia later attempted to sue Taburno Vasarely in 2009 to reach a commission agreement over sales of the art.

In 2012, a French court gave Pierre the moral right to Vasarely’s artworks. Later, in 2013, a Parisian court ordered 200 works of art in Puerto Rico to be returned to France so they could be distributed to Vasarely and Yvaral’s heirs.

Pierre was alerted that the works of art were in Puerto Rico in 2014 when he received a call from Rojas Buscaglia, according to local newspaper El Nuevo Día.

“I have so many documents proving my ownership,” Taburno Vasarely told The Art Newspaper. “The federal court decision was that during four years of inquiry, Pierre Vasarely, who was accusing me, did not bring any proof that could sustain his allegations.”


Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL