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
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
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
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
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