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Havana canvases often come to dust in Miami, especially really old ones. Juan Diaz, a 68-year-old vice president of a corporation that manufactures microwave radios, was lounging with his wife in his high-rise condo in downtown Miami Sunday, September 4, when he received a telephone call from his brother's wife. She told him to look at the Artes y Letras section of El Nuevo Herald. So he descended to the street, walked a block to 1 Herald Plaza, and fetched a copy. Sure enough, in a spread about an exhibition of Cuban portraits at Maxoly Gallery in Little Havana, there was a work featuring a young woman wearing a yellow dress and relaxing in a chair. He knew the painting well because the woman in the portrait is his sister Lucila. The last time he saw it was in 1960 at his family's home in the Miramar section of Havana, just before he and the rest of his clan fled the revolution.
In addition to this uncanny discovery of the painting, something else was strange. The caption next to the portrait attributed the work to Leopoldo Romañach, one of the most famous Cuban painters of the early Twentieth Century. After contacting Lucila, who is now 80 years old, at her home in Alicante, Spain, Diaz confirmed that the man who painted the portrait was a Spaniard named Julio Antonio Ortiz. Lucila remembers it well. She was dating Julio when he painted it, Diaz notes.
Flummoxed and suspicious, Diaz visited the gallery at 1600 SW Eighth St. and informed gallery owner Maximo Sarracino of his intimate knowledge of the painting. Sarracino told him that El Nuevo Herald had made a mistake, that the name on the caption should have been Armando Maribona, another of Cuba's early twentieth-century artists. "Those people at the gallery got so nervous," Diaz says. "I asked, 'How did you get that painting?' He said, 'It's owned by a private collector.' I said, 'Who?' He said, 'We cannot talk about that.'" Diaz says he told Sarracino he had photos of the painting that would prove it once belonged to his family and that he would return with them.
Instead Diaz contacted New Times and provided a black-and-white family photo taken in the Forties in which the painting of his sister can be seen on the wall behind him and his posing relatives. When New Times visited Maxoly Gallery with the Diaz family photo last week, the portrait was still up along with about 35 others in the exhibition, which ends October 22. A signature, "Maribona," was found on the lower left-hand corner of the canvas. On the wall below the painting a white tag stated: "Armando Maribona, Retrato de Señora, oil on masonite, $15,000." The tag also had a red dot, which means the painting is not for sale, the Sarracinos said. They applied the red dot after Diaz's visit, they explained, because they couldn't sell a painting in good faith until questions about it were resolved.
But until someone proves otherwise, the gallery owners are going with Maribona. "Everybody says this is an Armando Maribona," Maximo declares. His brother Pedro fetches an old catalogue from a month-long exhibition held at the Municipal Palace in Havana beginning December 29, 1941. He turns to a page featuring a black-and-white photo of a different Maribona painting whose subject is another woman in a chair. Pedro notes a similarity between the faces and elongated hands of the painting in the catalogue and the one on the wall. That's a far cry from a provenance, a document containing details of a work of art, including ownership and exhibition history and sometimes written authentication from the artist and bona fide experts.
Pedro, acting a little miffed, takes the painting off the wall and hauls it to a back room, where he turns off the ceiling lights and, using a hand-held contraption, shines an ultraviolet ray on the canvas. Sections of it are streaked in purple, indicating places where restoration work has occurred and thus the paint is relatively new. When he shines the ultraviolet light on the signature, no purple light appears. "I have doubts that it is by Julio Antonio Ortiz," Maximo affirms.
The problem is that while "everybody" says it's a Maribona, everybody agrees there are no experts who can truly authenticate Cuban paintings of this sort. The Sarracinos are quick to point out they are dealers, not experts, and to try to wear both hats would be a conflict of interest. They soon admit the only Maribona expert they know of is Olga Lopez Nuñez, a long-time curator who works at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, with whom they have not consulted.
This is the recurring dilemma surrounding works by Cuban painters who are ill-documented and dead. But that hasn't stopped several local dealers from trying to foment a growth market for the realistic Cuban paintings of the Nineteenth Century and the first half of the Twentieth. Such works tend to sell for only $10,000 to $30,000 apiece.
"That painting strikes me as strange," offers Roberto Ramos, director of the Cuban Masters Collection, who viewed the works in the Maxoly exhibition. Ramos, who is also a dealer, has spent the past ten years trying to recover and authenticate Cuban paintings from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. "Maribona was a little less realist. He used colors that were a little softer, more pastels," he adds. "But it would have to be analyzed."
This past April another dealer of Cuban art, Ramon Cernuda, threatened to sue New Times if it published an article (Fake Art, Real Money, April 28) that included Ramos's opinions that six paintings Cernuda exhibited at Art Miami this past January were fakes. Ramos, says Cernuda's lawyer, also threatened to sue Cernuda after the article was published, but did not follow through.
The Sarracinos, who left Cuba in 1994, are taking a different approach to the arrival of adverse opinions. After seeing the Diaz family photo, they are sounding downright conciliatory. Regardless of whether it's a Maribona or an Ortiz, they say they would consider asking the current owner, who lives in Mexico, to sell or even give the painting to Diaz, as long as there is proof it once belonged to his family. What kind of proof would they need? "The photo," Maximo replies.
Only time -- along with the Sarracinos, the Mexican owner, and Diaz -- will tell just where this nostalgic Cuban portrait will gather its dust.