By Michael E. Miller
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Then in 1989 U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen ordered a raid on Cernuda's private collection and charged him with violating the federal embargo on Cuba, formally known as the 1963 Trading with the Enemy Act. In a landmark decision, a federal judge sided with Cernuda, ruling that art is protected under the First Amendment and thus exempt from the embargo.
With Cernuda's federal court victory, a thrilling new supply of Cuban paintings began appearing at galleries in Miami, New York, and other hubs of Latin American art. The home-study entrepreneur grew even richer buying and selling paintings. During the early Nineties, for example, the price of a Wifredo Lam work soared into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Con artists were quick to smell the fast money, too, and cranked up a clandestine trade in forgeries, operating primarily out of Cuba, Spain, Mexico, and the United States, experts believe. (Auction houses use the terms forgery and fake interchangeably; both refer to paintings created in the style of master artists, sometimes with great skill, sometimes not. The paintings are often accompanied by counterfeit certificates of authenticity.) "[The boom market] was very much related to the wealth of Cubans in the United States," says Juan Martinez, a professor of art history at Florida International University, who adds that during the heyday of the mid-Nineties, the experts on Cuban art were all in Cuba. "We didn't have those people here," he explains. "I still think that's a major problem."
Meanwhile Cernuda, whose collection of Cuban art had grown to become one of the largest in the world, began to portray himself as an expert and an exacting crusader against the rising tide of fakes. He would learn the hard way. In 1992 he paid $16,000 for a painting by contemporary artist Tomas Sanchez. The seller was Javier Lumbreras, owner of the now-defunct gallery Javier Lumbreras Fine Art in Coral Gables. But when Sanchez visited Cernuda's home in 1993, the artist said he hadn't painted it. Cernuda sued Lumbreras, and in 1995 a judge ordered the art dealer to pay Cernuda nearly $20,000.
In November 1997, after examining the catalogue for a Christie's auction of Latin American art, Cernuda traveled to New York to inform executives at the firm that he believed some of the Cuban paintings on which it was about to open bids were forgeries, including works by Mario Carreño, Rene Portocarrero, and Esteban Chartrand, with a total value of some $500,000. Christie's pulled six of the works.
Lumbreras, who owned one of the yanked Carreños, a 1944 painting titled Dos Mujeres, retaliated soon thereafter with a defamation lawsuit against Cernuda, his wife Nercys, and a friend named Mervin Gomez. Besides the Christie's incident, the complaint referred to a March 1994 protest by the three defendants in front of Lumbreras's gallery, alleging the dealer was selling fakes. The case was quietly settled out of court in January 2004.
Three years ago Cernuda was involved in a lawsuit brought by Miami business executive Luis Quevedo against Eleanora and Ivan Hanuszkiewicz, former owners of La Boheme Fine Art gallery, also located in Coral Gables. Quevedo had consulted with Cernuda and Miami appraiser Luis Lastra and was convinced that a 1946 Carreño work titled Los Músicos, which he'd purchased several years earlier from La Boheme, was fake. He had paid $45,795 for it. His lawyer submitted an affidavit by a New York-based scientist who studied the pigment and canvas and testified that the work couldn't have been painted earlier than the late Fifties. But a carbon-14 test of the fabric at a University of Arizona physics lab was inconclusive.
Recalls Eleanora Hanuszkiewicz: "The judge said, 'For a painting worth $40,000, if you go to a jury trial, you're going to spend three or four times that much. If I were you, I'd burn it.'" Quevedo withdrew his suit in March last year. Hanuszkiewicz and her husband no longer own the gallery, but she insists their departure was not a result of the litigation. She also maintains that the Carreño is original. "They couldn't prove that it was false because it was well documented," she says, referring to a certificate signed by the artist's wife while Carreño was alive. "In the eyes of the people who are knowledgeable about Carreño, it was good."
Cernuda also played a role in a lawsuit a collector filed against veteran dealer José Martinez-Cañas, owner of Elite Fine Art, also of Coral Gables. Ecuadorian businessman and part-time Miami Beach resident David Goldbaum tried to return his Carreño, a 1941 painting titled Mujer en Balancín, which he'd bought from Martinez-Cañas for $150,000. He'd conferred with Cernuda about its authenticity. The dealer refused to take back the work, insisting it was authentic. But in an affidavit, a curator at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, Ramon Vazquez Diaz, testified that someone had forged his signature on a certificate that accompanied the painting. A judge dismissed the suit this past December, citing a "lack of prosecution" after Goldbaum's lawyers struggled to present their case by the court's deadlines. Meanwhile Elite Fine Art closed in September 2003, with Martinez-Cañas owing nearly $200,000 to various artists and about $650,000 to creditors. He declined to comment for this article.