Fake Art, Real Money

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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."

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen