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He was familiar with three of the six alleged fakes among Cernuda's Art Miami selections because he claims to have seen each one before, on three separate occasions over the past four years. In each case, Ramos asserts, a different prospective seller sent him a snapshot-size photo of the painting, and then he saw it in person. He says he rejected all three as fakes.
As evidence they're fakes, he presents snapshots he received of each of the three paintings. For starters, he says, two of the paintings in the photos -- the Mesa nude and Atardecer (ca. 1910) by Antonio Rodriguez Morey -- are not signed. These three paintings are identical to the ones Cernuda had on display at Art Miami, he claims, except Cernuda's were signed. The landscape painting in the third photo, listed as Paisaje (1930) by Antonio Sanchez Araujo in Cernuda's catalogue, is signed, but Ramos alleges it was actually painted by an artist named Diego Guevara.
He says he can tell that the three other paintings he questions, including the Chartrand, are not authentic just by looking at them. For example, regarding the 1915 Gumersindo Barea still life titled Florero (Vase), Ramos says, "I don't think that painter could have painted it. That's my opinion. All of the work of Gumersindo Barea is watercolor. And everything he painted in oil was waterscapes and landscapes. Those flowers aren't from Cuba -- it's very strange. But I don't have photos or proof."
Ramos repeats that he doesn't believe Cernuda would deliberately sell forgeries. "I think there is someone in this town who dedicates himself to selling fake paintings," he ventures, "and who takes advantage of the fact that Ramon doesn't know anything about art from that period and sold [the paintings] to him cheap."
Gallery owner Gary Nader, while questioning Cernuda's expertise, views Ramos as just another dealer posing as an expert whose opinions are further besmirching the image of the local art community. "What makes him an expert? Because he owns 50 paintings?" Nader sputters. "The guy came in a boat, he came with twenty paintings, and he sold them. He made money and he keeps buying and selling. That makes him an expert? He's trying to do a good job, but from there to an expert? Does he really know what he's doing?
"Sorry, this is not like in the land of the blind," he goes on, "where the man with one eye is king. No, no, it doesn't happen like that with art. There are too many mistakes made in Miami. That's why there are so many galleries that open and close and why there are so many collectors who don't collect anymore, because they've been misguided. And it affects everybody else. It affects people like me who have been 30 years in the business."
Naysayers will be assuaged, Ramos assures, as soon as a book he has written about his collection is published. He hasn't yet found a publisher but insists he will by the end of the year.
"That is a competitor saying these things," Cernuda responds in a calm and patient voice during a telephone interview in late February. "I have been defending Cuban art for many, many years. I don't think [Ramos] is capable of questioning these things."
Still, he entertains each of Ramos's assertions, dismissing them one by one.
On Desnudo Femenino (1917) by Manuel Mesa: "What [Ramos] doesn't know is that there are two Manuel Mesas," one born in 1903 and one in 1894.
On Paisaje con Campesinos (ca. 1870) by Esteban Chartrand: "I'm the expert in the world on Chartrand. [Ramos] consulted me on Chartrand."
On Del Lindero Hacia el Palmar (1948) by Antonio Rodriguez Morey: "That work was certified by experts in Cuba."
On Paisaje by Antonio Sanchez Araujo: "That's ridiculous."
On Florero (1915) by Gumersindo Barea: "That's ridiculous."
On Atardecer (ca. 1910) by Antonio Rodriguez Morey: "Have you checked his curriculum [vitae]?"
A week later, speaking in his art-filled office, Cernuda remains courteous. A fashionable black tie adorns his elegant shirt, his white hair cut stylishly just over the collar. He notes how his 1989 victory in federal court was followed by another in 1991, after he sued the City of Miami for trying to evict the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture from its location in a former fire station. He speaks earnestly about his gallery. "This is, for my wife and me, a passion," he says. "Others own huge yachts. Others play golf." But he will not comment further on Ramos or his opinions about the paintings. The proper forum for discussing the authenticity of an artwork, he contends, is a private meeting, not in the media.
With the assistance of a Havana-schooled art conservator who now lives in Miami, Cernuda demonstrates one method for checking the age of paint using ultraviolet light and a cotton swab dipped in solvent. Oil paint does not fully dry for approximately ten years. If a painting is less than ten years old, the swab will absorb pigment. He performs the experiment on the Manuel Mesa nude. None of the paint from the signature rubs off on the swab. (Cernuda refused to allow New Times to publish any images of artwork from Cernuda Arte catalogues.)