A Rembrandt and two rare Dürer ink drawings stashed in a castle in Nazi Germany, stolen by Soviet troops and handed over to the K.G.B. only to be stolen again from an Azerbaijani museum and offered for sale by a doomed Japanese ex-wrestler trying to raise $12 million for a kidney transplant and . . .
No, it's not a movie script, at least not yet. It's a criminal case from the files of the United States Customs Service, and today in New York, Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill is to supply a happy ending: the return of the masterpieces, part of a trove of 12 works valued at about $15 million, to the Bremen Museum in Germany, which hid them during World War II. Some were recovered in 1997 from a Brooklyn apartment.
''Alfred Hitchcock himself could not have devised a better plot line for high drama and international intrigue,'' said Charles Winwood, acting United States Customs Commissioner. ''This case had everything.''
The most precious of the drawings is a voluptuous nude scene in black ink, ''Women's Bathhouse,'' by Albrecht Dürer dated 1496 but probably done in 1494 and valued at about $10 million. The other works, together worth about $5 million, include a second Dürer ink, ''Sitting Mary With Child,'' executed around 1514; a Rembrandt drawing in brown ink, ''Woman Standing With Raised Hands''; two black chalk landscapes by the Dutch master Jacob van Ruisdael, and a black ink drawing by the French artist Jean-François Millet.
In an arrangement with the Bremen Museum, Sotheby's, which helped evaluate the works, is putting them on public display this afternoon through Saturday at its auction house on York Avenue at 72nd Street.
''When stolen treasures are smuggled into the U.S., we do all we can to return them to their rightful owners and to bring any wrongdoers to justice,'' Mr. O'Neill said in a statement prepared for today's news conference. The works are to be handed over at 11 a.m. at the United States Custom House at the World Trade Center in Manhattan to Dr. Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador, and George Abegg, president of the board of the museum, Kunstverein Bremen. Also scheduled to take part in the ceremony are Commissioner Winwood and Mary Jo White, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office prosecuted the case.
The 12 recovered drawings were acquired by the Bremen Museum between 1820 and 1860. In 1943, with the war going badly for the Germans, the works were among 1,520 treasures moved for safekeeping to Karnzow Castle north of Berlin. After Soviet troops occupied the castle, the drawings disappeared. Paul J. Browne, senior adviser in the Customs Service's office of investigation, said that an agent had recently seen documentation in Azerbaijan showing that the K.G.B. gave the drawings to the National Fine Arts Museum in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea.
In 1993 the Baku museum announced plans to display the drawings, alerting the Germans who then asked for them back. The two countries were discussing a repatriation when they were stolen again in July 1993, along with 180 other works from the museum.
In the summer of 1997, the Customs Service said, Masatsugu Koga, a Japanese businessman and former wrestler, walked into the German Embassy in Tokyo showing photographs of the stolen drawings, which he described as family heirlooms, and offered to sell them back for $12 million. It developed, Customs said, that Mr. Koga, whose mother was Russian, knew Aydyn Ali Ibragimov, an Azerbaijani Olympic wrestler, and had met with him and Mr. Ibragimov's former wife, Natavan Aleskerova, at a Chinese restaurant in the Swissotel in Istanbul in 1995 to plot the ransoming of the works to the Germans.
Ms. Aleskerova, who spent 13 years in law enforcement in Baku as the equivalent of a deputy attorney general in the United States, was suspected along with her ex-husband in the theft of the drawings from the museum in Baku, law enforcement officials said. In New York she was later convicted of conspiring to hide and sell the art.
When the Germans told Mr. Koga that the drawings he was trying to sell had been stolen, he said they were not heirlooms after all and dropped the asking price to $6 million, which he said he needed for a kidney transplant. Still rebuffed, he left.
Mr. Koga surfaced again in September 1997 in the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York, where he met with Dr. Anne Rover-Kann, curator of the Bremen Museum and a Customs undercover agent posing as her associate. When Mr. Koga withdrew the Dürer and Rembrandt drawings from a plain manila envelope, he was arrested.
In October, Ms. Aleskerova, apparently learning of the arrest and concerned about the rest of the art, flew to New York, where she was delayed at Kennedy International Airport under a pretext until Customs agents could assemble a surveillance team. She was picked up by a son from a former marriage who was then a student at New York University and who, Customs said, tried to elude pursuit, driving so erratically that agents had to pull them over. Ms. Aleskerova was arrested; the son was let go. She was tried and convicted in June 1999 for involvement in the ransom scheme.
The six remaining drawings and the 180 other missing works from the Baku museum were later found in the closet and under the bed of an apartment at 540 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, the home of another Azerbaijani wrestler who, Customs said, appeared to have no knowledge of the plot but was doing a favor for the fugitive Mr. Ibragimov.
The case is not yet closed. Ms. Aleskerova served an 11-month federal sentence in New York, butCustoms agents are still hunting for Mr. Ibragimov, who they said has been known to travel on a Chinese passport.
Mr. Koga, having pleaded guilty, died at 64 in March 1999 in Tokyo. It seemed he was telling the truth about needing a kidney transplant.
Federal prosecutors have charged two suspected Russian mobsters with abducting and murdering a professional boxer who had mysteriously disappeared from a Brooklyn garage in late 1995.
The two men were identified as Alexander Nosov, 24, who is in jail in Germany on an unrelated charge, and Natan Gozman, about the same age, who is at large. In an indictment filed Monday by the United States attorney in Manhattan, they were each charged with four counts of kidnapping and murder. Each also faces a weapons charge.
The victim, Sergei Kobozev, was a former army captain who had boxed for the Soviet national team before immigrating to the United States in 1990. At a muscular six feet, 190 pounds, he was the United States Boxing Association's cruiserweight champion. It was not quite a major title in an often-overlooked division, between light heavyweight and heavyweight, but he had a 22-1 record, including 17 knockouts.
When he disappeared on Nov. 8, 1995, he was only months away from his biggest bout: a $100,000 shot at the World Boxing Council's cruiserweight title. He was 31.
The indictment said Mr. Nosov and Mr. Gozman shot the promising champion in a Brooklyn auto repair shop and then spirited him, still alive, to New Jersey. After someone else broke his neck, the indictment said, the two men and others buried the boxer in the backyard of a house in Livingston, N.J.
The F.B.I., acting on a tip last March, dug up Mr. Kobozev's body. The current occupants of the house, which used to be the home of a high-ranking Russian mobster, had nothing to do with the crime, said Joseph A. Valiquette, a spokesman for the agency.
Mr. Kobozev's remains were identified in part through a custom-made mouthpiece that he used when he boxed, which fit the dental formation of the skeleton found in New Jersey, Mr. Valiquette said. The F.B.I. was still pursuing a DNA match through relatives in Russia, he said, but there was no doubt that it was the boxer.
The indictment said he was shot on the day he disappeared during a confrontation with the two men and others in the repair shop, which was not identified. The investigation is proceeding into others who might have been involved in the murder.
Prosecutors said they would seek Mr. Nosov's extradition from Germany, while Mr. Gozman is believed to be in the United States.
The two could face the death penalty for the charge of murder in the aid of racketeering, although Germany in the past has refused to extradite prisoners here until the United States government agrees not to pursue capital punishment.
The indictment says that the two were members of a Russian mob group known as Tatarin's Brigade. It was operating in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, the indictment says. Eight other members have already been indicted on numerous racketeering charges for the group's involvement in murder, kidnapping, robbery and extortion.
Mr. Nosov and Mr. Gozman had sought a greater role in the mob group's activities by kidnapping the boxer for ransom, the indictment said.
Police officers assigned to his case and some friends have said that shortly before his disappearance, the boxer may have scuffled with a member of a Russian organized crime family at the Paradise Bar, a Sheepshead Bay nightclub where he worked as a bouncer.
But neither the F.B.I. nor prosecutors would confirm that incident or speculate about what might have prompted the kidnapping.
Mr. Kobozev's fellow boxers expressed relief yesterday that someone had finally been charged.
''It's good,'' said Peter Kahn, who used to help train him at Gleason's Gym, on Front Street. ''He was a great fighter and a great kid and it was a big tragedy.''
A Federal appeals court has upheld the conviction of a New Jersey woman who was found guilty earlier this year of murdering her husband with an ax.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said in a decision released yesterday that the Federal law used to convict the woman, Rita Gluzman, 48, in the April 1996 murder of her husband, Yakov Gluzman, was constitutional.
Mrs. Gluzman's lawyers had argued that the 1994 law, which makes it a crime to cross state lines to injure a spouse or intimate partner, stretched beyond Congressional power under the Constitution's commerce clause. Mrs. Gluzman is serving a sentence of life without parole as required by Federal sentencing guidelines.
Mrs. Gluzman, who lived in Upper Saddle River, N.J., was convicted in January of the murder of her husband, a native of Ukraine and a scientist famed among cancer researchers for his work with viruses, in his home in Pearl River, N.Y. Prosecutors said Mrs. Gluzman was worried that their impending divorce would ruin the comfortable life style to which she had become accustomed.
She and a cousin killed Mr. Gluzman with an ax, and she directed the cousin to dismember the body and dispose of it. The cousin, Vladimir Zelenin, was discovered dumping the body parts in the Passaic River. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
It began as an international art theft case: three people, from Japan and Azerbaijan, charged in Federal District Court in Manhattan in a conspiracy to traffic in stolen art by the Great Masters.
And it seemed like an open-and-shut case: the United States authorities said they had recovered 12 drawings, worth more than $10 million, that were from a collection looted from the Bremen Museum in Germany at the end of World War II. Works by Rembrandt, Durer, Jacob van Ruisdael, Annibale Carracci.
Or are they?
Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the author of a book on art fakery, is asking whether the stolen art works are even genuine. Hired as a witness for the defense, Mr. Hoving, who examined the 12 drawings, said in court papers filed this week that he found them to be lesser works or imitations, and all in terrible shape. The so-called Rembrandt was not authentic, he said.
They ''appear to have been misattributed to the named artists,'' Mr. Hoving stated, adding, ''As far as is known, this is the first scholarly examination of these items in over 50 years. Their condition and artistic discrepancies make their re-emergence disappointing at best.''
Mr. Hoving's findings, filed on Thursday as part of a broader motion to dismiss the charges and put the art on trial, suggest that the case may be evolving into a battle of experts over the authenticity of the ink, pencil and chalk drawings..
Citing the findings, Michael A. Lacher, a defense lawyer, told Judge Loretta A. Preska that his client, Natavan Aleskerova, a prominent lawyer from Baku, Azerbaijan, should not be prosecuted because the drawings seized by the Government were not the same as those famous works specified in the indictment.
''If you accuse me of stealing a Rolex, for example, and it turns out that it's a Swatch, I didn't steal a Rolex,'' Mr. Lacher said in a telephone interview yesterday. ''It's the old story. All that glitters is not gold. The Government has exaggerated everywhere.''
Prosecutors refused comment yesterday on the defense's findings. Ms. Aleskerova and Aydyn Ali Ibragimov, a former champion wrestler, were accused of meeting with an unidentified conspirator in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1995, to get help in selling the stolen drawings and hiding them later in an undisclosed location in Brooklyn. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and receiving, concealing and selling stolen goods; Mr. Ibragimov is a fugitive. Another man in the case, Masatsugu Koga, has pleaded guilty to the same charges.
The Government has asserted in court that the drawings were taken from the Bremen collection after the war, and were later stolen from the National Museum of Baku in 1993. Prosecutors have called the drawings ''very valuable and long lost'' art.
Mr. Hoving disputed that. Of a drawing that the Government maintains is Rembrandt's ''Standing Woman with Raised Hands,'' worth about $2 million, he wrote: ''I cannot imagine it being by the master whose ink drawings throb with energy. Its attribution is incorrect, and does not fit Rembrandt's body of work.''
And of Durer's ''Women Bathing,'' valued at $6 million, Mr. Hoving stated, ''There's something out of balance with the whole perspective.
''The back wall and the ceiling are at odds with each other and the juncture of the back wall with the bricks of the fireplace is 'out of whack', and it has no position in space, whereas Durer was a genius at placing objects in space.''
Based on those and other inconsistencies, he said, calling it a Durer was ''very questionable.''
A Japanese man arrested last month and charged with trying to sell more than $10 million worth of drawings, including works by Rembrandt and Albrecht Durer, has pleaded guilty and has agreed to cooperate with Federal prosecutors, according to court documents.
Although prosecutors have not revealed what they learned from the man, Masatsugu Koga, whose guilty plea last month was revealed in a transcript unsealed on Friday, they have since charged a prominent lawyer from Azerbaijan and her former husband in the case and suggested that the conspiracy may be broader.
The drawings came from a cache of artwork that prosecutors said was originally part of a collection looted from the Bremen Museum in Germany at the end of World War II. The drawings were later stolen from the National Museum of Baku in Azerbaijan and hidden in New York City.
''There are more drawings out there, which are under the control of this defendant and her ex-husband,'' Maxine Pfeffer, an assistant United States attorney, said at a recent bail hearing for the lawyer, Natavan Aleskerova, 43, who was charged on Oct. 7 with conspiracy as well as receiving, concealing and selling stolen goods, the same charges to which Mr. Koga pleaded guilty. She pleaded not guilty and was ordered held in $1 million bond at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
''We think this is a nightmarish mistake by the Government,'' her lawyer, Michael A. Lacher, said yesterday. He has said Ms. Aleskerova is one of the most respected lawyers in her country, someone who has spent 13 years in law enforcement in Baku, in a position comparable to that of a United States deputy attorney general.
He said she runs the American Azerbaijan Foundation, an exchange program for students and lawyers. ''The Government is of the belief that it has apprehended a major master criminal here,'' Mr. Lacher said. ''We scoff at that.''
He said Ms. Aleskerova is someone ''who does not deserve to be in custody, who has done nothing wrong and who looks forward to vindication.''
The indictment accuses Ms. Aleskerova and her former husband, Aydyn Ali Ibragimov, a former champion wrestler who is still being sought, of meeting with an unidentified conspirator in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1995 to get help in selling the stolen drawings, and of later concealing them in an undisclosed location in Brooklyn.
The story began last spring when Mr. Koga, now 61, entered the German Embassy in Tokyo and offered to sell 12 drawings. Seeking $6 million, he said he was seriously ill and needed a kidney transplant.
Mr. Koga told the German officials that he had purchased the 12 drawings in Baku and that he knew they were stolen, according to Government court papers.
The drawings included one Durer, titled ''Women Bathing,'' which prosecutors say is worth about $6 million, and a Rembrandt, ''Standing Woman With Raised Hands,'' worth about $2 million.
German authorities sought to recover the 12 drawings after learning that they were being shown in 1993 in the National Museum of Baku, according to court papers. But they then disappeared from that Baku museum.
Mr. Koga's lawyer, Cary Bricker, did not return a telephone call yesterday.