Fake Art, Real Money

That beautiful painting by Cuban artist Domingo Ramos? The one you bought from a Miami gallery for $10,000? Ready for some bad news? It's a forgery

In 1999 art dealer Alfredo Martinez, owner of the Alfredo Martinez Gallery in Coral Gables, filed a defamation suit against Cernuda that is still pending. The suit was prompted by a small protest Cernuda organized outside Martinez's gallery in September 1998, which denounced him as a trafficker of fakes. Six other individuals were named in the suit, including Cernuda's wife. "The problem is not so much [the abundance of fakes in Miami] as it is manipulating information," observes Martinez, who declines further comment. Cernuda also refuses to discuss the case.

Of Cernuda, Eleanora Hanuszkiewicz says, "This gentleman has created a chaotic climate to eliminate all of the galleries and all of the serious dealers in Cuban art so he can be the king. Now he has the luxury of [allegedly] having fake paintings himself, but because he's like the king of painting, now everyone has to believe him. He has succeeded in discrediting Martinez-Cañas, Alfredo Martinez, and me."

Cernuda remains sanguine. "It's not about proving the other person is wrong," he insists. "You've got to prove that you're right." And, he adds, once he has given an opinion, he is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prove it right. "We've never had a [customer make a] claim of a forgery," he says, referring to his gallery, Cernuda Arte, located at 3155 Ponce de Leon Blvd. in Coral Gables. He boasts that unlike his failed competitors, Cernuda Arte, which he opened five years ago, issues a lifetime guarantee for every painting it sells.

Art dealer Gary Nader (left) avoids Cuban paintings and doesn't trust so-called experts; Eleanora Hanuszkiewicz (right), who once owned La Boheme Fine Art, was dragged into litigation after a customer alleged she sold a fake Mario Carreño
Jonathan Postal
Art dealer Gary Nader (left) avoids Cuban paintings and doesn't trust so-called experts; Eleanora Hanuszkiewicz (right), who once owned La Boheme Fine Art, was dragged into litigation after a customer alleged she sold a fake Mario Carreño


Although some of Cernuda's competitors have left the Cuban art trade unwillingly, other dealers won't touch Cuban works to avoid the problem of fakes, claims and counterclaims, and the potential for legal entanglements. Cernuda stays in the game, although he admits it's tough. "I'm consulted by New York's auction houses every day," he says, "and 90 percent of the time I'm telling them their paintings are wrong. Fortunately Cuban forgers are very clumsy and lazy. We have amateurs."

In a November 1998 article by Mark Hunter in ARTnews, Cernuda identified Cuba as a major source of forgeries and criticized the Havana government for "not doing anything they should be doing" to control the problem. But today Cernuda says, "I don't think many of [the fakes] are coming from Cuba. They have been effectively prosecuting forgers on the island. It's a police state, so they can easily clamp down on that. Most of the forgeries are coming from other countries."

FIU'S Juan Martinez, a specialist on Cuban modernist painter Carlos Enriquez, says very little is known about the counterfeiters, in part because law enforcement agencies rarely investigate them: "The theory is these fakes are made in a number of places. Some in Spain, some right here in Miami, some in Mexico." He receives about five visits a year from dealers and collectors who want him to certify an Enriquez. "Half of them are fakes," he says.

In Miami it appears that many art dealers merely look the other way rather than contact law enforcement about the black market. "We all know who is selling fakes in town. They go from one door to another," says Gary Nader, whose gallery just south of Cernuda's specializes in contemporary Latin American works but rarely features Cuban art. "What are you going to do? Are you going to follow them? They have no money. They have no bank account. They'll say they bought the painting in good faith and they sold it in good faith."

The supply of paintings from the academic period and the colonial era (New World discovery to the Spanish-American War of 1898) has not been as tainted as that of the Cuban modernist period, which emerged with Havana's vanguardista movement in the late Twenties and then perished amid the island's political and cultural revolution of the Sixties. Interest in the older works has been tepid, and so have the prices they've commanded. The most expensive auction sale was The Runaways (1880), an Esteban Chartrand landscape that sold for $114,000 in November 2003 at Sotheby's. Works by other colonial and academic painters -- Leopoldo Romañach, Antonio Rodriguez Morey, and Antonio Sanchez Araujo -- fetch far less than Chartrands, usually well under $100,000 and often $10,000 or less.

On the other hand, Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) has proven to be a modernist money machine. One of his paintings set a record for a Cuban work when it sold for nearly $1.3 million in 1998. Lams are among the easiest to verify, says FIU's Martinez. The artist's widow devoted years to creating a detailed provenance -- a document chronicling the life of a painting, including ownership and exhibition history -- for some 1000 of her husband's works. A plethora of curators and scholars have seen them around the world. Meanwhile the earlier, more affordable colonial and academic pieces can be extremely difficult, even impossible, to authenticate. "The problem ... is that there is very little information," Martinez says. The only bona fide scholars of Cuba's colonial and academic paintings are either working at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, retired from there and still living on the island, dead, or never existed. For example, there really is no expert on Cuban impressionist painter Domingo Ramos (1894-1956). "You're up a creek with Domingo Ramos," Martinez warns. "Nobody's written about his work."

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