Fake Art, Real Money

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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.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen