Fake Art, Real Money

When art dealer Ramon Cernuda talks, people listen. Some may not like his message, but he says it anyway. In the Eighties he drew angry protests by declaring he had a constitutional right to buy and exhibit art from Cuba, even if the island was under communist rule and subject to a U.S. trade embargo. In the Nineties he embarrassed a number of private collectors who had spent tens of thousands of dollars on paintings that he very publicly deemed fakes. Simultaneously he angered the Coral Gables gallery owners who sold the alleged fakes -- he even picketed outside their doors -- prompting some of them to file defamation lawsuits claiming he had ruined their reputations and forced them out of business.

These days wealthy collectors continue to consult him, as do sophisticated specialists at Sotheby's and Christie's, New York's most prestigious auction houses for Latin American art, who often seek Cernuda's opinion on the authenticity of works by Cuban artists. But auction-house executives privately report that at times he has been a bit too outspoken for their circumspect tastes and has, alas, made enemies. So it may come as no surprise that the courtly 57-year-old gallery owner finds himself under attack once again.

As Cernuda put the final touches on his display area at the Art Miami exposition this past January, the controversies of yore seemed as remote as the horizon in a Dali landscape. Collectors who attend Art Miami have come to expect impressive presentations from Cernuda, and he did not disappoint this year, fielding a stunning array of Cuban paintings from the late 1800s to present day. In his exhibition catalogue, Cernuda hinted that people might want to act quickly on some of the older pieces, which "have become scarce and are not often available in the market." And he added there was "invigorating" news for buyers. It was "the general opinion of experts in the field of Cuban art," he wrote, "that none of the Cuban artworks offered this year at auction provoked questions or doubts as to authenticity." It was "a great stimulus for investments" in a market that has been tainted by an abundance of fakes.

Everything was great until Roberto Ramos appeared at Cernuda's booth. Over the past decade, the 40-year-old Ramos has assembled, with little acclaim and much frustration over the lack thereof, a rare collection of paintings by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Cuban artists. According to Ramos, Cernuda gave him a copy of the catalogue. Ramos thanked him and then took a look around Cernuda's booth. He recognized one of the paintings: Desnudo Femenino, a romantic work featuring a nude woman standing near the edge of a misty lake, pulling on a robe, a turbulent sky in the distance. The piece, by one Manuel Mesa, was dated 1917 in the catalogue. Ramos says he asked Cernuda if he knew that Mesa was born in 1903, which would mean the artist was just fourteen when he painted the nude. Cernuda shrugged him off, and then Ramos left the exhibition area. (Cernuda declined to comment on the encounter.)

That might have been the end of their conversation, but in fact it was only the beginning of an ugly little scandal. Ramos believes that not only Desnudo Femenino but also five other paintings in Cernuda's Art Miami display, which subsequently have been on view at his Coral Gables gallery, are forgeries.

Ramos doesn't think Cernuda is knowingly selling counterfeit art. The problem, says Ramos, is that Cernuda simply doesn't have sufficient expertise in certain types of Cuban art to recognize the fakes. (Ramos is referring specifically to so-called academic paintings, those created by Cuban artists who had been formally trained at Havana's San Alejandro Academy in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries and who tended to paint landscapes and folkloric subjects in a realistic style.) "It bothers me a lot, the damage he is doing to Cuban art by saying on every corner that paintings are fake without having the capacity to do so," Ramos fumes. When first contacted by New Times for this article, Cernuda, who reportedly sold about a million dollars' worth of art during Art Miami, dismissed Ramos as an amateur, described his claims as "ridiculous," and suggested they constituted "business defamation."

Cernuda, who became a millionaire selling Cuban encyclopedias and home-study English courses for Spanish speakers, has endured far more bizarre affronts over art. In the Eighties he amassed a substantial private collection of paintings by modernist and contemporary Cuban artists. In the spring of 1988, he and a small group of fellow collectors organized a fundraising auction at the nonprofit Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture in Little Havana, featuring paintings by deceased masters Wifredo Lam, Rene Portocarrero, and Amelia Pelaez, plus contemporary artists living in Cuba who had not repudiated the Castro regime. Protesters disrupted the event; one anti-Castro activist bought a painting, took it outside, and burned it. Days later a bomb exploded outside the museum's front door. Cernuda received so many death threats, he says, he stopped reporting them to the FBI. In June 1990 a much more powerful bomb caused significant damage, and the museum was forced to close for six months.