As Latin American Art Prices Rise, So Does Forgeries
By CRISTINA CARLISLE
Ramón Cernuda, a Miami-based publisher and passionate collector
of modern Cuban painting, recalls his first encounter with the
shadowy world of art forgery. But there was nothing murky about the
setting: it was the mid-80's, in an elegant Miami home whose owner was a
private dealer from one of Cuba's most patrician expatriate families.
Therefore, he had no reason to doubt that the painting by Wilfredo Lam
(1902-82) being offered to him for $200,000 was anything but an original
by the acclaimed Cuban artist.
But even as he
was negotiating the purchase,
he sent a photograph of the work to the
artist's widow, Lou Lam, to have it
authenticated. The work turned out to be a
copy, and Cernuda learned that the dealer
had tried to force Lam into accepting money
in exchange for her endorsement. He was
Over the years,
however, Cernuda's anger
continued to mount as he saw fake paintings
inundate the Latin American market. Despite
the traditional secrecy with which most
collectors like to shield themselves, Cernuda
decided to speak out, and he has become
one of the leading crusaders against forgery.
"In the 80's
the fake market was restricted to the occasional imitation of
works by Lam, but now there is a veritable epidemic of fake paintings by
Cuban masters from the 20's through the 60's," Cernuda said.
"Unfortunately, extortion and bribery are very much a part of this
collectors, dealers and museum curators agree that the
recent boom in prices for Latin works has created a parallel fake market,
particularly for modern Cuban masters. Mary-Anne Martin, a Manhattan
dealer who founded Sotheby's Latin American department in 1977 and
was its head until 1982, said that a growing demand from affluent
Cuban-American families in Florida for modern Cuban paintings was
accounting for their dramatic rise in value. "As soon as art starts to get
valuable, the fake market begins," she said.
But it's not
just Cuban art. Martin said she had detected a number of
forgeries of Mexican works. There is some Mexican art so obviously fake
that she is identifying the different hands of specific forgers, she said. "I am
offered at least one false Frida Kahlo a month, and I have more copies of
Diego Rivera in my files than real ones," she said.
The forgers are
apparently getting bolder: even the sloppiest imitations
find their way at times into auction houses in Spain and the United States,
and across Latin America. Last November, for example, Christie's
opened an evening sale of Latin American art in New York by
announcing the withdrawal of six lots, all by Cuban modern masters,
because there were doubts about their authenticity. The questioned works
involved two paintings by Mario Carreño, two by René Portocarrero and
two by Esteban Chartrand.
"One of the forged
works was dated four years after the artist's death,"
"Another carried a false authentification certificate."
previously been embarrassed, in 1993, by having to print a
new catalogue after its cover turned out to be a picture of a copy of a
painting by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, rather than the original.
Botero insisted on having the copy destroyed, and a videotape was made
of the artist and Martin taking a knife to it at a lawyer's office in New
are said to be copied in Asia. Martin said a friend traveling
through Saigon had come across a workshop where skilled craftsmen
were reproducing Boteros from photographs.
"We try to investigate
as thoroughly as possible," said Fernando
Gutiérrez, director of the Latin American department at Christie's. "But
sometimes we receive information after the works are published in the
catalogue. This is regrettable but can happen at any auction house."
and Sotheby's withdrew works by Antonio Berni, an
Argentine artist, from their November 1996 catalogues when they proved
to be false. Since Berni works are reaching the $1 million figure, Ruth
Benzacar, the Buenos Aires dealer who handles his estate, has just
established an authentification committee.
point to Cuba as the origin of many of the forgeries
detected in the market. El País, the Spanish daily, recently reported that
the Guardia Civil had broken up a ring of con men last December who
were smuggling forged paintings into Spain from Cuba. Four are under
arrest. Among the 22 paintings uncovered by the police were works,
deemed fake by experts, that were supposedly by Picasso and Miró and
Cuban masters like Pelaez, Víctor Manuel, Carreño and Mariano
"Works sold with
the authorization of Cuba's National Museum of Fine
Arts carry an authentification certificate, and our customs officers are very
strict," said Lilian Llanes, director of the Wilfredo Lam House of Havana
and president of the Havana Biennial. "The problem is that international
interest in treasures of Cuban art has generated a huge unofficial market of
false works that may find their way abroad."
experts conclude that a lack of in-depth knowledge of Latin
American art is a major factor . "The Latin market has become too huge,
and expertise is fragmented; there just aren't experts who cover the entire
art spectrum," said Mario Gilardoni, a leading Buenos Aires art market