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.

Then in 1989 U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen ordered a raid on Cernuda's private collection and charged him with violating the federal embargo on Cuba, formally known as the 1963 Trading with the Enemy Act. In a landmark decision, a federal judge sided with Cernuda, ruling that art is protected under the First Amendment and thus exempt from the embargo.

With Cernuda's federal court victory, a thrilling new supply of Cuban paintings began appearing at galleries in Miami, New York, and other hubs of Latin American art. The home-study entrepreneur grew even richer buying and selling paintings. During the early Nineties, for example, the price of a Wifredo Lam work soared into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Con artists were quick to smell the fast money, too, and cranked up a clandestine trade in forgeries, operating primarily out of Cuba, Spain, Mexico, and the United States, experts believe. (Auction houses use the terms forgery and fake interchangeably; both refer to paintings created in the style of master artists, sometimes with great skill, sometimes not. The paintings are often accompanied by counterfeit certificates of authenticity.) "[The boom market] was very much related to the wealth of Cubans in the United States," says Juan Martinez, a professor of art history at Florida International University, who adds that during the heyday of the mid-Nineties, the experts on Cuban art were all in Cuba. "We didn't have those people here," he explains. "I still think that's a major problem."

Meanwhile Cernuda, whose collection of Cuban art had grown to become one of the largest in the world, began to portray himself as an expert and an exacting crusader against the rising tide of fakes. He would learn the hard way. In 1992 he paid $16,000 for a painting by contemporary artist Tomas Sanchez. The seller was Javier Lumbreras, owner of the now-defunct gallery Javier Lumbreras Fine Art in Coral Gables. But when Sanchez visited Cernuda's home in 1993, the artist said he hadn't painted it. Cernuda sued Lumbreras, and in 1995 a judge ordered the art dealer to pay Cernuda nearly $20,000.

In November 1997, after examining the catalogue for a Christie's auction of Latin American art, Cernuda traveled to New York to inform executives at the firm that he believed some of the Cuban paintings on which it was about to open bids were forgeries, including works by Mario Carreño, Rene Portocarrero, and Esteban Chartrand, with a total value of some $500,000. Christie's pulled six of the works.

Lumbreras, who owned one of the yanked Carreños, a 1944 painting titled Dos Mujeres, retaliated soon thereafter with a defamation lawsuit against Cernuda, his wife Nercys, and a friend named Mervin Gomez. Besides the Christie's incident, the complaint referred to a March 1994 protest by the three defendants in front of Lumbreras's gallery, alleging the dealer was selling fakes. The case was quietly settled out of court in January 2004.

Three years ago Cernuda was involved in a lawsuit brought by Miami business executive Luis Quevedo against Eleanora and Ivan Hanuszkiewicz, former owners of La Boheme Fine Art gallery, also located in Coral Gables. Quevedo had consulted with Cernuda and Miami appraiser Luis Lastra and was convinced that a 1946 Carreño work titled Los Músicos, which he'd purchased several years earlier from La Boheme, was fake. He had paid $45,795 for it. His lawyer submitted an affidavit by a New York-based scientist who studied the pigment and canvas and testified that the work couldn't have been painted earlier than the late Fifties. But a carbon-14 test of the fabric at a University of Arizona physics lab was inconclusive.

Recalls Eleanora Hanuszkiewicz: "The judge said, 'For a painting worth $40,000, if you go to a jury trial, you're going to spend three or four times that much. If I were you, I'd burn it.'" Quevedo withdrew his suit in March last year. Hanuszkiewicz and her husband no longer own the gallery, but she insists their departure was not a result of the litigation. She also maintains that the Carreño is original. "They couldn't prove that it was false because it was well documented," she says, referring to a certificate signed by the artist's wife while Carreño was alive. "In the eyes of the people who are knowledgeable about Carreño, it was good."

Cernuda also played a role in a lawsuit a collector filed against veteran dealer José Martinez-Cañas, owner of Elite Fine Art, also of Coral Gables. Ecuadorian businessman and part-time Miami Beach resident David Goldbaum tried to return his Carreño, a 1941 painting titled Mujer en Balancín, which he'd bought from Martinez-Cañas for $150,000. He'd conferred with Cernuda about its authenticity. The dealer refused to take back the work, insisting it was authentic. But in an affidavit, a curator at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, Ramon Vazquez Diaz, testified that someone had forged his signature on a certificate that accompanied the painting. A judge dismissed the suit this past December, citing a "lack of prosecution" after Goldbaum's lawyers struggled to present their case by the court's deadlines. Meanwhile Elite Fine Art closed in September 2003, with Martinez-Cañas owing nearly $200,000 to various artists and about $650,000 to creditors. He declined to comment for this article.

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.

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."

And there's another problem. The FIU professor believes Cernuda knows more about Esteban Chartrand than anyone in Miami but points out that because he is a dealer, Cernuda has a conflict of interest. "If I were buying a used car," Martinez continues, "I wouldn't just get the opinion of the guy selling me the car. I'd get many opinions." Anyone who acts as both the authentication expert and the dealer for a particular artwork would have a conflict of interest. "That's always the case," Martinez adds.

At the heart of the matter, according to Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, curator of Latin American art at the University of Texas's prestigious Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, is a lack of scholarship and museums in Latin America. "I don't think there is a gallery that I would really trust [for Cuban art]," he says. "I would go to the auction houses, because over the years in their Latin American departments, they have people who have seen so much art that they have a very good gut reaction right away if something is good or not."

The dearth of scholarship and provenances is precisely why Jorge Santis, head of collection research and curator of the Contemporary Cuban Collection at Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, says he wouldn't dare acquire a Cuban colonial or academic painting from anyone, no matter how knowledgeable. "You're really getting into a can of worms there," he warns. "It's too risky. It's like playing numbers."

But Cernuda is not one to be daunted by the odds; he sees a growing market for colonial and academic paintings, and he plans to stick with what he knows best. He also has no tolerance for critics who allege that his inventory includes fakes -- especially if that critic happens to be Roberto Ramos. "Incredibly, I'm being questioned about a Chartrand," he says, a terse reference to Ramos.

In 1991, while the millionaire Cernuda was basking in the glory of his landmark victory in the U.S. court system and expanding his art collection, Ramos was still trying to figure out how to leave Cuba. He'd dropped out of the University of Havana and made news in January 1992 when he, his brother, and twelve other refugees made it to Islamorada. They arrived in a 24-foot boat along with a stash of paintings. He was 27 years old. According to Ramos, there were nineteen works, including one Chartrand, one Wifredo Lam, two by Tomas Sanchez, three by Servando Cabrera Moreno, three by Amelia Pelaez, four by Leopoldo Romañach, and five by Carlos Sobrino. Relatives had given him and his brother the three Pelaezes and the Lam, he says. The plan was to sell the works and use the proceeds to finance their new lives in America.

While Ramos and the others were being hustled away to the Krome Detention Center, someone stole the paintings from their boat and sold them to the Marpad Art Gallery in Coral Gables for $35,000, according to police. Ramos and his comrades eventually recovered the works and sold them.

Since then Ramos has labored to become an expert on more obscure Cuban paintings, insisting that his primary interest is to salvage and preserve artwork long neglected by scholars in Cuba and forgotten by Cubans in general. He has returned to Cuba several times, he says, to locate such works and bring them to Miami. None of the 120 paintings in his "Cuban Masters Collection," housed at an art storage facility in downtown Miami, is currently for sale, he says. For the time being, he makes a living selling prints and originals he deems unworthy of his collection. He hopes to sell the collection itself to a museum one day.

The most valuable painting he owns is titled Idilio (1938), by Antonio Rodriguez Morey, a Spaniard who moved to Cuba with his family when he was sixteen, according to Ramos. "I have investigated the whole life of Rodriguez Morey directly from his family," he says, "plus everything that's in books." In explaining how he managed to acquire Idilio, Ramos relates that although Rodriguez Morey was once the director of Cuba's National Museum of Fine Arts, the painting didn't end up there. "He left it to his family, in their house, and told them that if one day they needed money, they could sell the painting." A daughter of Rodriguez Morey had refused to sell it, but eventually Ramos bought it from the artist's grandchildren during a trip to Cuba. "I am recovering a period of art that has been erased for the past 50 years," he says.

Ramos maintains that when he first embarked on his project more than a decade ago, Cernuda told him he was crazy, that he'd be better off buying real estate. Nonetheless he has managed to show his paintings at the Cornell Museum of Art and History in Delray Beach, the San Carlos Institute in Key West, the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, and the Forge restaurant in Miami Beach.

"What happened is that we became competitors," Ramos says of Cernuda. "He opened his gallery [in 2000] and started saying that everything I sell is fake. Every time a collector buys a painting from me and he sees it, he says it is fake."

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.)

Informed of the test, Roberto Ramos says he hadn't heard of the nineteenth-century Manuel Mesa Rodriguez but asserts that Cernuda must have been selling the painting as if it were created by the twentieth-century Manuel Mesa Lopez. Both are Cuban, but the latter is widely known for his paintings of folkloric scenes and murals on government buildings in Havana. "He painted the whole Capitolio Nacional; he painted a lot," says Ramos. "He is in all of the books of the era; he was the son of a patriot who was José Martí's secretary, who was named Luis Mesa. That's the Manuel Mesa who is collected." The Mesa Rodriguez in Cernuda's collection is, he declares, "European garbage that doesn't have anything to do with Cuban painting."

The evening of February 11, Cernuda stuck his neck out again, this time at the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum. The occasion: the opening-night reception for an exhibition of some 50 paintings and drawings by the late Antonio Gattorno, a Cuban modernist who was friends with writers John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Alejo Carpentier.

According to the owner of the collection, 46-year-old Frank Padron, Cernuda attended the opening and then went to dinner with a group of collectors and told them he believed some of the Gattornos were fakes. "He questioned a couple of paintings, and he's wrong," says Padron, who owns an art-framing shop in Kendall. "Fortunately for Gattorno and for me, Gattorno's paintings are very exclusive. He died almost like Vermeer. He kept his best paintings, and when he died, they were all in his home."

After the artist's 1980 death in Massachusetts, his widow, Isabel Cabral, sold about twenty of his paintings to a neighbor for $20,000. Those paintings remained in the neighbor's attic for two decades. Padron bought them in 2003 and collaborated with Sean Poole, who is married to a niece of Cabral's, on a book about Gattorno that was published last year.

"There hadn't been too many fakes, but since we did the book, some fakes are popping up right now," Padron reports. "A couple of people have brought me paintings that I've rejected, that I'm not interested in. I try not to get into telling people, 'Your painting is fake,' and stuff like that. Because I did that once and you lose the friendship, you lose the collector as a possible buyer. If somebody comes and asks me my opinion about Gattorno and a Gattorno painting, I'll tell them. But I don't volunteer. I don't try to be like Ramon Cernuda, who claims to be the crusader for Cuban art. He offered his opinion in front of too many people, which makes it no longer private conversation. That hurts Gattorno's paintings, and he may have to answer to that a little bit later."

At Cernuda's office, when the subject of Padron's Gattorno exhibit comes up, the dealer simply smiles. "No comment," he says. Perhaps he is only now learning that when Ramon Cernuda talks, people listen -- sometimes too many people.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen