News Column

Prominent art dealer: Paintings stolen from Cuba's National Museum of Fine Arts now in Miami

February 27, 2014

By David Smiley, The Miami Herald



Feb. 28--Works of art recently discovered stolen from the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana are for sale in South Florida, according to a prominent Cuban art collector.

Miami art dealer Ramon Cernuda, owner of a large private collection of 20th Century Cuban paintings, said Thursday that he has found at least 11 paintings in Miami that belong to the collection of Cuba's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. He said he learned of the theft after purchasing a stolen painting by Vanguardia artist Eduardo Abela.

"We called the museum authorities and spoke at length with two museum officers," said Cernuda, who has a history of reporting stolen art. "They discovered through our call that this painting had been stolen. Because of our call it was also discovered they had lost other works stolen from their warehouse."

Cernuda was unsure of the totality of the crime, which he said occurred at a museum warehouse. The blog Cafe Fuerte, citing sources, puts the number of stolen pieces at close to 100.

Contacted Thursday, museum spokeswoman Diorca Diaz said she was not authorized to comment. She referred a reporter to the Center for International Press, which did not respond to an email. Likewise, an FBI spokesman did not comment Thursday and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman said investigators were unaware of any artwork in Miami stolen from the museum's collection.

Several local collectors and gallery owners said they had heard little to nothing of pieces stolen from the museum. But the reported thefts would appear to be the latest example of the complications of trading and collecting Cuban art in Miami, where the authenticity and ownership of such pieces can be suspect, in part because of the large number of artworks confiscated by the government during the Cuban Revolution.

"I've been dealing with Cuban art since the mid-'50s and we're very, very, very careful about what we take in," said Virginia Miller, whose Coral Gables gallery is currently showing an exhibit of Cuban art from the 1950s to 2013.

Miller, whose gallery recently hosted two curators from the museum, was among Miami collectors who said they'd heard nothing of the reported thefts. But others said they'd received word of stolen art being hawked in recent days.

Cernuda said he came across the first piece of museum art two weeks ago when he purchased Abela's Carnaval Infantil from another gallery, which he declined to name. He began to suspect the painting was stolen when he found a book that listed the art as museum property.

After confirming the painting was stolen, Cernuda said he checked around South Florida and found another 10 museum paintings in one location, all by the the well-known Leopoldo Romanach. He declined to name the location.

"To see three or four of those works together is not common," he said. "And I saw 10 that had been cut with, like, an Exacto knife. The thieves didn't even bother to take out the nails from the stretchers."

Cafe Fuerte reported that the Romanach works were confirmed by a second U.S. art dealer, though none who spoke to the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald Thursday said they'd seen any stolen pieces.

This would not be the first run-in with stolen art by Cernuda, a colorful collector whose paintings were once confiscated and then immediately returned by the U.S. Government in a Cuban embargo flap. Four years ago, he tipped off the FBI when a nurse tried to sell him seven paintings that had been reported stolen from a Miami storage unit.

Works confiscated by Communist regimes frequently turn up in Miami, according to Tania Mastrapa, a consultant who specializes in researching ownership history -- or provenance -- for prospective buyers. Mastrapa said museum heists, which have been reported before at the Havana institution, are usually committed with the knowledge of the government.

Cernuda, speaking to the Herald from Spain, said he has yet to call U.S. authorities. He said he intends to return the painting to the museum when he gets back from Spain, and has asked them to document the stolen paintings with Interpol, which keeps a database of pilfered art.

"We have recommended to the national museum they fully report the theft to Interpol and request and consider the cooperation of the FBI so these works, which are property of the national museum, be returned to the museum."

El Nuevo Herald reporter Maria Perez contributed to this report.

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Source: Miami Herald (FL)


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