It began like a normal art auction: Late Monday afternoon in the Design District, a smattering of well-heeled buyers sipped champagne and prepared their numbered paddles, ready to bid on some 200 pieces from a collection of works by famed Cuban sculptor Agustín Cárdenas. The items up for sale included drawings, photographs, and sculptures, some priced upward of $30,000 each.
But around 5:15 p.m., as auction house owner Frédéric Thut took the stage, a commotion erupted. Outside the room, a well-dressed man with a French accent yelled, “Excuse me!” to the seated crowd as a security guard blocked him from entering.
“I am the son of Agustín Cárdenas, and those pieces are not part of the archives!" he bellowed. "You should not buy these pieces!”
Cárdenas was later shoved by security and eventually escorted out by police, who threatened to arrest him if he attempted to reenter.
The confrontation was a dramatic climax to a months-long saga that has pitted the late artist’s family against Thut, the owner of Fine Art Auctions Miami. Cárdenas’ family and a number of experts claim the sculptures and some of the drawings in the collection are fakes. But Thut, a longtime European art dealer, says he conducted a thorough vetting process and is confident the works are legitimate.
“They are blatant fakes,” André Cardenas, the artist’s son and keeper of his archive, tells New Times. “The shading of the drawings, the wood, the form — this is not my father’s work. It’s just mind-blowing.”
Thut counters, “This was a collection held by two people for a long time, and we really felt we did all our research and had sufficient evidence."
Agustín Cárdenas was born in 1927 in Matanzas, Cuba. After studying at Havana’s Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, he began to exhibit his work in Cuba. In 1955, at age 28, he moved to Paris, where he joined the surrealist movement and worked as a prolific sculptor. In 1994, he returned to Cuba, where he died in 2001. André and his siblings grew up in Paris.
Thut says the collection is all early, pre-1955 works that surfaced out of hiding in Cuba about nine months ago and had been amassed by the artist’s sister-in-law. In September, when Thut contacted the family to authenticate the collection, André asked for a certificate for the pieces, which Thut did not have.
After examining the works, the family questioned their validity as well as the claim that the artist's sister-in-law had been harboring the pieces. They were also unfamiliar with the consigner. André has managed auctions of his father's work at well-known auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's, where sculptures have sold for $200,000 to $300,000. He told Thut the sale should not take place. But Thut went forward anyway.
“We were in an uncertain position,” Thut says. "We had to go ahead to see how the market reacted.”
Two weeks ago, when the auction catalogue surfaced, Cárdenas’ relatives were horrified. They say many of the documents and drawings from when Agustín was a student are good, but they’re mixed in with a number of fakes. The works have since been discredited by his family, including his first wife; a number of his longtime friends, both from Cuba and Paris; as well as experts familiar with his oeuvre.
But Thut says many of the people discrediting the works are not familiar with Cárdenas' early sculptures. "The family said they didn't know this family in Cuba," Thut says. "Our team worked on this for a long time, and I fell in love with Cárdenas' work."
Hours before Monday’s auction, André, who now lives in San Francisco, arrived at Fine Art Auctions Miami with his attorney and demanded once again that Thut cancel the auction. Thut refused.
And after André was escorted from the building, the auction continued as planned. Within two hours, every piece was sold, to buyers in the room and via internet and phone. A number of the sculptures sold for $20,000 to $30,000 each.
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Rudy Mendez, a physical therapist and Cuban art collector, entered the auction after it had already begun. He bought two sculptures. After the auction ended, Mendez said he was "shocked" to hear about the family's allegations, but he also said the situation isn't entirely uncommon when it comes to Cuban art, which is often difficult to authenticate.
"I've seen this happen with families left and right," he says. "The value of Cuban art has gone up so much, yet most of the documentation was lost or doesn't exist, so it's hard to certify. I think they're really good sculptures, and I'm going to believe the family is incorrect until they prove otherwise."
The Cárdenas family plans to sue the auction house.
“You know, there’s always fakes in the art world,” André says. “But I have never experienced it like this, to this scale. Every specialist and dealer and artist who worked with my father is appalled. It’s just so bad.”