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Publications Collectors of Cuban  Art  Get Burned in Miami's Hotbed of Forgerles Collectors of Cuban Art Get Burned in Miami's Hotbed of Forgerles
The Miami Herald August 10, 2003

By : Jay Weaver

The Miami Herald
August 10, 2003
Section: Local
Edition: Final
Page: 1B


On the eve of a major Latin American art sale in 1997, Christie's abruptly pulled six Cuban paintings valued at $500,000 because they were suspected to be fakes. The New York auction scandal exposed a dirty little secret: Forgeries of pre-Castro paintings by Wifredo Lam and other Cuban masters were polluting the world's art market. And the troubling trend hit hardest in the one community with the closest links to Cuba - Miami.

Among the rich-and-famous collectors who became victims - two of Miami Beach's most celebrated exiles, Emilio and Gloria Estefan.

"You have to be very careful," said Axel Stein, director of the Miami office of Sotheby's, one of Christie's competitors in the lucrative art auction business. "We have seen collections of Cuban paintings . . . and they are worth zero dollars."

"The Cuban art market has become so tainted that some Miami connoisseurs have spent thousands of dollars to hire forensic analysts, just like those who help police crack crimes. Such experts test canvases, primers and pigments to determine whether prized paintings of the Vanguardia era, from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, are forgeries."

The root of the problem: During the modernist movement's boom in the last decade, Cuba's isolation under Fidel Castro's rule has made documenting a painting's authenticity a challenge.

Scholarly records, exhibit histories and reputable experts are scarce. At the same time, Miami has turned into a bazaar for Cuban art and a battleground for lawsuits. Gallery owners and art lovers - including Ramón Cernuda, who has the largest Vanguardia collection outside the island - have filed a half-dozen suits against one another over allegedly forged works of Amelia Peláez, Mario Carreño and other Cuban modernists. Other forgery victims have dealt with their embarrassing purchases more quietly. The Estefans, former ambassador Paul Cejas and businessman Francisco Mestre got burned when they unwittingly paid in the six-figure range for forgeries of Lam and Peláez paintings, according to people familiar with the sales.

But they were able to use their clout to recover their investments by getting their money back or authentic paintings of equal value, the sources said. The Estefans and Cejas could not be reached, and Mestre did not want to comment. Sotheby's Stein said that before anyone buys or sells a valuable painting, it's essential to establish its provenance, or custody history. The artwork's commercial viability largely depends on tracing its ownership. For example, Stein said, Sotheby's in New York sold El Guitarrista (The Guitar Player), painted in 1944 by Carreño, for a record $456,000 in May, primarily because it had only two previous owners. But some of the alleged Cuban fakes sold in Miami have been difficult to trace. Skeptical buyers have insisted on certificates of authenticity from gallery owners. That, however, has led to another kind of forgery.

Some recent sales have come with dubious certificates of authenticity purportedly signed by a respected Vanguardia curator who has worked for decades for Havana's National Museum of Fine Arts. In Miami court documents, however, curator Ramón Vázquez Díaz swore the certificate featuring his name to verify a 1941 Carreño painting is a fake, lending support to the buyer's complaint that the artwork is a forgery. Ecuadorean businessman David Goldbaum bought the painting for $150,000 from Coral Gables gallery owner José Martínez-Cañas of Elite Fine Art. Goldbaum traveled to Cuba in June to meet with Vázquez and obtain his sworn statement. "I affirm categorically that the certificate of authenticity written by hand on the back of a photograph of Mujer en balancín (Woman on Swing), an oil painting attributed to Mario Carreño, is not of my authorship," Vázquez wrote in his affidavit.

A preliminary report on the age of the painting's canvas, based on a radiocarbon test by a University of Arizona physicist, also shows that it dates from the post-1945 period. But Martínez-Cañas insisted in affidavits that the Vázquez certificate and the Carreño artwork are authentic. Christie's, however, refused to sell the Carreño painting at auction earlier this year after learning from the curator that he had never seen the work and had not issued the certificate. Martínez-Cañas, who has a criminal history from a 1977 bank-fraud conviction in Puerto Rico, was hit last month with another lawsuit alleging art forgery. Miami Beach businessman Timothy Heuer accused the dealer of selling him a fake Peláez oil painting for $135,000 and giving him a phony Vázquez certificate of authenticity. A scientific analysis by James Martin of Massachusetts, who specializes in testing paints and has done work for the FBI, concluded the purported 1951 Peláez piece, Naturaleza Muerta (Still Life), was not even an oil painting. Martínez-Cañas said Heuer's suit is off the mark. "The painting is good," he said, declining further comment. In Florida, gallery owners are not licensed. A dissatisfied buyer can sue a dealer over a questionable painting up to four years after the purchase. Auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's, by comparison, offer a five-year guarantee, but buyers must prove an artwork is counterfeit. Luis Quevedo, a Coral Gables aviation executive, is trying to do just that after buying a purported 1946 Carreño painting, Los Músicos (The Musicians), for $45,795 from La Boheme Fine Art in Coral Gables. The gallery owner, Ivan Hanuszkiewicz, wrote that it was an "original" on the invoice. But Quevedo became suspicious after consulting with Cernuda. Then Quevedo hired the University of Arizona lab to conduct a carbon test on the work's fabric and New York scientific researcher Eugena Ordoñez to analyze the pigment. "The results from the inorganic pigment analysis and the fabric analysis indicate that the earliest date that the painting could have been made would be the late 1950s," Ordoñez wrote.

Quevedo demanded his money back. The gallery owner refused. Quevedo went to court. La Boheme's attorney, Pedro Martínez-Fraga, a collector of Vanguardia art himself, described the suit as a "dispute over a date" and called it "frivolous." Gary Nader, a pioneer in the Latin American art market who owns a Coral Gables gallery, said buyers and sellers can never be too careful. "If I'm not 100 percent sure, I don't want to sell them," Nader said. "There are so many things that give them up." He said, for instance, that he rejected about 60 Cuban paintings submitted for his January auction because he considered them forgeries just by looking at their styles, colors and the artists' signatures in photographs. Nader said that over the past decade, he received so much fake Lam artwork for consignment that it became an "epidemic." He collaborated with the artist's widow, Lou Laurin Lam, to try to put a stop to it by documenting the provenance of her late husband's paintings for the official Catalogue Raisonné, considered the bible of the art world. Despite such precautions, he said, Miami's marketplace for Cuban art forgeries persists with apparent impunity. Said Nader: "What is lacking is the right system that punishes people who sell fake art." Herald translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report.
Illustration:color photo: Apparent forgery of 1951 Amelia Peláez piece 'Naturaleza Muerta' (Still Life) (a)DEBUNKED: A scientific analysis by James Martin of Massachusetts, who specializes in testing paints and has done work for the FBI, concluded the purported 1951 Amelia Peláez piece 'Naturaleza Muerta' (Still Life) was not even an oil painting.

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