Stolen Work From Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana Resurfaces in Miami

Eduardo Abela, Carnaval Infantil (1953), oil on wood.

A large-scale art theft at the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana was discovered this week when paintings from the Cuban museum’s collection were offered for sale in Miami. The missing works had all been taken from museum storage facilities, and their disappearance had previously gone unnoticed. 

The alarm was raised by Miami-based Cuban art dealer and collector Ramón Cernuda, who purchased Carnaval Infantil, a painting by Vanguardia artist Eduardo Abela, two weeks ago. (Vanguardia is a term commonly used to refer to Cuban Modernist artists from the early- to mid-20th century.) In researching his latest acquisition, the dealer came across a book that listed the painting as belonging to the museum. Cernuda, who has a history of identifying stolen art, and once reunited a Cuban exile with two lost canvases, contacted museum authorities, who were subsequently alerted to the extent of missing inventory. In a phone conversation with artnet News, Cernuda revealed that the museum has now reported a total of 95 items stolen.

The FBI is in possession of Cernuda’s checks and other documentation connected to the sale, and the gallery plans to turn over the painting to the authorities later today. Pending the investigation’s conclusion, the work will be returned to Cuba. Cernuda claims to have identified 10 additional paintings from the Havana institution, all by Leopoldo Romanach, that are currently for sale in Miami. He has not publicly identified the seller of either the Abela canvas or the Romanach works, as those galleries may have been, like Cernuda Arte, the victim of fraud. 

Given Cuba’s tumultuous political past, it is often difficult to establish the provenance of Cuban artwork, and collectors know to be wary of illegally obtained art. “We have to be very thorough in dealing Cuban art due to the number of forgeries and to a lesser degree thefts,” said Cernuda. Sotheby’s, for instance, found itself embroiled in a legal battle some years ago over a painting allegedly stolen by Cuban communists. 

In a report from the Miami Herald, spokespersons from the National Museum and the FBI both declined to comment on the developing story. 

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