Agents from Interpol launched an international investigation on Friday after one of four works of art stolen during an audacious, multimillion dollar raid on a museum in Rio was put up for sale on a Russian Web site.
Federal police said Henri Matisse's Luxembourg Gardens had been placed on the auction site Mastak for around four hours and that they suspected collaboration between foreign buyers and drug traffickers.
Reports in the Brazilian press suggested that a French man, who used to live in a beachside apartment in upmarket Ipanema, may have been the brains behind the robbery.
The paintings, valued at around US$50 million, were snatched on the first day of Carnival from the Chacara do Ceu museum in the Santa Teresa district. Armed thieves stormed the museum during a samba procession before supposedly making their escape through the crowds.
Also among the stolen paintings were Claude Monet's Marine; Picasso's The Dance and Salvador Dali's Two Balconies.
As a reconstruction of the crime entered its second day yesterday, police said that burnt fragments of three of the frames had been found in a favela (shanty town) close to the museum.
The fragments were located near a bar in the Morro dos Prazeres, a hilltop shanty town well known for the elaborate graffiti that adorns its entrance.
Isabelle Vasconcellos, the police chief heading the investigation, said they suspected that drug traffickers were trying to sell the paintings, which she believes are still in Rio de Janeiro.
She said: "We have a videotape of the procession but we haven't been able to identify them [the thieves] from it."
During a visit to the museum on Thursday one politician called for a parliamentary investigation into the trafficking of Brazil's cultural heritage.
"This is trafficking; this is organized crime," state deputy Alice Portugal told reporters.
Web crime haven
Since the 1990s Brazil has gained a reputation for online crime. In 2004 a federal police report said the country was home to 80 percent of the world's hackers, while community groups such as the Google-run Orkut are, police say, frequently used to hawk drugs and stolen goods.
Marcelo Marques, of the Sao Paulo organization HackerTeen which trains young people in Internet security, says many Brazilian criminals now view the Internet as a "land without law."
"Lots of people describe Brazil as a paradise for online evil-doers," he said.
As details of the theft emerged this week bewildered revellers, who may have unwittingly given cover to the fleeing criminals, were left scratching their heads.
"I thought it was strange that the federal police were there," said Rafael Kalil, 25.