Art Lost: Cuban Artistic Patrimony and Its Restitution
Por Alberto Bustamante

In October 1996 a group of members of Cuban National Heritage traveled through Eastern Europe. We were interested in learning about the process of political and economic transition, as well as the rich heritage of these countries. What an experience! We found much in common with these people, particularly in the long process of oppression and the endless struggle for the freedom of our native land.

Cuban National Heritage is involved in preserving the cultural roots of the Cuban nation. Its members study the preservation and urbanization of the beautiful architectural heritage of Havana, Trinidad and other Cuban cities. It also monitors the wholesale of the Cuban patrimony by the hierarchy of the Cuban revolution who considers it a source of income.

We searched for answers to many questions as we visited the eastern European countries that had been behind the Iron Curtain until 1989. The economic transition was most evident in East Germany, which has the power of West Germany's solid investment. Berlin is predicted to become the economic capital of the European Common Market in the near future. The architectural jewels of Budapest and Prague are an inspiration for our own dreams in Old Havana. Budapest is ahead in the transition of beautification due to changes implemented by the Kadar government of liberalization after the revolt of 1956. Prague, like most of Czechoslovakia, moves faster toward the restitution of private property due to the legalization of the process. Investors, both native and foreign, are provided security through this legalization. In Poland, we learned to great effect how the city of Warsaw was destroyed by the Nazis after the ghetto uprising. We admired the reconstruction of the city by the Polish people working to preserve its historic and architectural heritage. Considering the lack of economic resources, this reconstruction is heroic.

All over Eastern Europe we saw the restoration of its heritage. The Veit Stoss Altar from St. Mary's Church in Krakow, Poland, was especially impressive. This masterpiece of the 15th century was found in the Nuremberg bunkers with other stored items in 1946. Months later it was returned to Krakow with other Polish treasures. This was celebrated all over Poland.

In every city we visited we heard of cases like this. We thought of the national tragedy of Cuba, where the artistic patrimony has been disposed of, not by an invading country, but, sadly, by our own people abiding by the totalitarian dictates of the system. The ongoing rape of the Cuban heritage should not continue to be ignored by the free world.

Following are some facts that should be known to all:

1. Since 1959 thousands of artistic artifacts of the Cuban patrimony, most from private residences of families that had fled the country, were disposed of by prominent members of the regime. Most were taken to large warehouses in Avenida del Puerto and sold.

2. Between 1960 and 1970, approximately 30 million dollars in books, most from private libraries, and small valuables were sold to western Europeans through East Berlin. There were also sales to dealers in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Madrid and Barcelona. In Toronto and Montreal many auctions took place. Advertisements were placed describing lots as being furniture, paintings and jewelry from the palaces of Havana and other Cuban cities. One documented example of this type of sale in Canada is from Montreal's Frazer Brothers Auctioneers in 1969.

3. For the past 39 years the Communist Cuban government has aggressively pursued smaller family heirlooms. To gain access to precious metals and gemstones, the government manipulated the chronic scarcity of consumer goods by establishing "trading centers" where ordinary citizens were encouraged to exchange jewels and artifacts for necessities such as electronic appliances, household goods and cash. The exchange rates were so abusive that the centers were soon nicknamed "centros Hernan Cortez," referring to the beads-for-gold deception practiced by the early conquistadors.

4. In May 1994 in Milan, Italy, the Casa Delle Aste, Instituto Italiano Realizze sold, at auction, 700 lots that were described as decorations and objects from the diplomatic residences of Cuba. The "diplomatic residences" were, in reality, the private homes of Cuban families. The total sale of 138 paintings alone was estimated at more than $8 million. Notice of the auction by the Italian press indicated that the items had received approval for export from the Cuban Ministry of Culture on March 12, 1994.

5. Periodically, shipments of Cuba's cultural heritage were moved through the Port of Barcelona to supply multiple dealers active in the Costa Brava.

6. The Cuban government, capitalizing on the Cuban people's need of dollars for basic survival, has encouraged and allowed the Galeria Las Acacias in Havana to accept art and antiques on consignment for sales overseas. Upon completion of the sale, the owner receives 70% and the state retains 30% of proceeds. Officers of the Museum of Fine Arts have often sold museum works at this gallery.

7. From the archival heritage the loss has not been any less. Thousands of documents from the National Archives and the National Library have been systematically sold to dealers worldwide. The stamps and seals of these institutions are easily identifiable on books and documents, clearly indicating their place of origin.

The most valuable rare books, illustrated with maps and engravings have disappeared from archives and libraries. In 1993 two copies of Libro Los Ingenios, written by La Plante, mysteriously disappeared from the Palacio del Junco in the Matanzas Museum. Similar works, such as a rare edition of Miahle engravings, have disappeared from the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País.

The Encyclopedia de La Sagra (1837-1860), considered one of the best of the 19th century, as it was printed in Paris with 13 maps, 159 color plates, 110 black-and-white illustrations, tables, diagrams, etc., in a folio type, is extremely rare. Historian Carlos Ripoll estimates there are no more than seven complete sets in existence. Four were in Cuba in 1959. Sources inside Cuba say that not even in the Cuban National Library can these books be found today. Fortunately, there is one complete set at the University of Miami's Cuban collection and another at Cuban National Heritage in Coral Gables.

8. The contents of the Library of Congress at the Capitol building, the second largest library in Cuba, were sold by the communist government in front of the Capitol, flea-market style. The Capitol itself, the cradle of freedom and democracy for the Cuban nation, was part of the destruction of symbols and traditions in the early stages of Fidel Castro's revolution when a cow fair was celebrated there.

9. Many other sales and auctions have been denounced by Cuban National Heritage and other organizations. Some examples are Roberto Borlegui's November 1996 sale in Dallas, as well as a sale of 350 paintings in September 1994. Christie's held an auction in London in November of 1989. Sothebys in London held an auction in 1988 in which a multimillion-dollar sale of paintings by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), a part of the Oscar Cintas collection, took place. Cintas, a patron of the arts, had left a legacy of artistic works by Cuban masters in the care and custody of the Museum of Havana. Ansorena, a Spanish gallery in Madrid, hosted a sale paid for by the Cuban government and held by a Swiss art dealer.

The Castro regime tries to hide the publicly known secret of art that is smuggled out through the Hemingway Marina. Confirmed by sources in Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas, where many of the dealers come and go in private yachts, transactions take place with high-ranking officers of the Cuban government.

Jesus Rosado Arredondo, head of registry, inventory and conservation at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana until November 1996, has confirmed that the closing of this museum was part of an operation ordered by Castro in June 1996 with officers of the armed forces and the security forces of the Ministry of the Interior. Named "Operation Canasta," 50,000 paintings, sculptures and other works of art valued at $500,000,000 were removed and hidden in three buildings controlled by the security forces. Mr. Rosado presented lists and proof of many works that vanished while he held his position at the museum. In the summer of 1997 Cuban National Heritage issued a press release regarding these most recent attempts to dispose of the richest art collection of the Cuban nation. The international press ignored our plea. We hope the government of Cuba will not have time to do with these collections what they did to many others.

Our organization keeps a constant monitoring, inventory and data base of all works being sold in the hope that a future, legitimate government of the Cuban nation can claim these works of art as the European countries have done. As the Eastern Europeans work to recover a heritage stolen during World War II and the communist totalitarian regimes, we work to assure that in the near future the Cuban people can accomplish the restitution of their freedom and national heritage.

Alberto Sánchez de Bustamante,
President, Cuban National Heritage

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