The New York Times
November 21, 2004

The Castro Collection


RESTING on a coffee table in Jose Fanjul's mansion on Jungle Road is an inscribed silver box, a gift from King Juan Carlos of Spain. Another table bears a silver-framed wedding photo of Mr. Fanjul and his bride greeting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Elsewhere in the house, silver-rimmed photos of Mr. Fanjul and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush are displayed prominently. An Impressionist work by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, "Girl in the Silvery Sea," hangs in a living room corner.

Mr. Fanjul opened a thick album and showed a visitor faded snapshots of cavernous estates that he and his extended family once occupied in and around Havana. Fidel Castro, after seizing the Fanjul family's real estate and sugar holdings in 1960, made one of their ornate residences his own.

Known to his friends as Pepe, Mr. Fanjul, 60, opened another hefty book, a handsome retrospective of Sorolla's works. Many of the paintings belong to a collection once owned by the Fanjuls and are still housed in Havana. He tapped his index finger on the glossy pages, quietly recalling where some of those Sorollas hung in his parents' home. A minor work by Sorolla - "Malaga Port" - that once graced an upstairs hallway is not featured in the book. Mr. Fanjul says he does not know where that painting is now, though he is almost certain that it is no longer in Cuba.

And therein lies a tale.

Six years ago, Mr. Fanjul learned that "Malaga Port" had surfaced in the London offices of Sotheby's, the auction house. He immediately phoned Joseph P. Klock, chairman of Steel, Hector & Davis, a Miami firm that handles his legal affairs. Mr. Klock, a power broker who would later advise Katherine Harris, then the Florida secretary of state, during the controversial presidential vote recount in 2000, had experience in cloak-and-dagger matters. He had a lawyer assemble a team to track down the Sorolla.

Mr. Fanjul and his older brother, Alfonso, who have become two of the United States' leading sugar magnates, then financed a global hunt for the painting. That pursuit, which continues today, offers a rare and unusually detailed road map of the subterranean, hush-hush business of art smuggling, a crime that is carried out at a very untidy intersection of art and commerce.

The long search for the Sorolla has wound through Cuba, Italy, Switzerland, London and New York, taking some unusual turns along the way. As part of their effort to track down "Malaga Port," the Fanjuls' lawyers filed claims with the State Department and the Treasury Department late last summer. They requested that the agencies penalize anyone trafficking in the painting because, they said, doing so violates federal trade sanctions against Cuba.

Last week, the Fanjuls' lawyers asked the State Department to focus specifically on Sotheby's, saying that the company knows who holds "Malaga Port'' and that its refusal to provide the Fanjuls with that information flouted laws against trading with Cuba. If the auction house is found culpable, Sotheby's overseas directors and their spouses could be forbidden entry into the United States. Any of Sotheby's American employees involved with the Sorolla could be subject to fines and jail.

The State Department and the Treasury Department declined to comment. A Sotheby's spokeswoman said that the auction house no longer had the Sorolla, had never sold it and had made every effort to respond to the Fanjuls' queries. She said Sotheby's last communicated with the Fanjuls four years ago but declined to say who brought the painting to Sotheby's, citing client confidentiality obligations.

SOTHEBY'S noted that it tightened its business practices after a series of scandals between 1997 and 2000 that tarnished its reputation, and it said that while it was confident it had not violated any Cuban trade sanctions, it would cooperate with the State Department if necessary.

"Sotheby's takes provenance and compliance issues extremely seriously everywhere in the world we do business, and we take pride in our pioneering efforts in these areas," said Diana Phillips, the spokeswoman for Sotheby's. "We take issues relating to displaced art, including art from Cuba, equally seriously. We are extremely conscious of the U.S. laws regarding trade with Cuba and articles of Cuban origin and long ago implemented policies and procedures to ensure compliance in this area.''

None of this satisfies the Fanjuls, who plan to continue using their formidable resources in the search. Family members are pressing their case at a time when the Bush administration is putting greater diplomatic and economic pressure on Cuba - a development that the Fanjuls applaud - and their action is a warning to any dealers tempted to traffic in other Cuban art whose ownership is in dispute.

"I'm disappointed that we had to find out through a third party that Sotheby's had the painting for a number of years," Pepe Fanjul said. "I'm sure they have their side of the story."

Alfonso Fanjul Jr., the steely, 67-year-old entrepreneur known as Alfy who rebuilt the Fanjuls' Cuban sugar empire in the United States, was more direct. "I have been surprised by the behavior of the art world in general when it comes to paintings that clearly belong to my family," he said. "I had hoped that they would see that it is important that we should be promptly notified when our artwork came into their hands. We would particularly like to know what the auction houses and others know of these paintings."Starting in the 1850's, the Fanjuls' ancestors began buying land and consolidating their control of Cuba's sugar business. By the turn of the century, they were among the country's dominant producers. It was a wildly lucrative business, and one built on the backs of poorly paid, landless farm workers.

Money from sugar built an extravagant mansion that Mr. Fanjul's maternal grandfather, Jose Gomez-Mena, stocked with fine European art, including dozens of Sorollas. In 1936, Mr. Fanjul's father, Alfonso Fanjul Sr., married Mr. Gomez-Mena's daughter, Lillian, uniting two of Cuba's largest sugar fortunes. When Fidel Castro, whose father owned a modest sugar plantation, led the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista's government in 1959, the Fanjul family's holdings became a target. Mr. Castro's government renamed the Gomez-Mena mansion, with all of its furnishings and art intact, the National Museum of Decorative Arts.

Pepe Fanjul recalls boarding a National Airlines flight from Havana, when he was a teenager. He was hustled aboard the plane by a friendly airport bartender and was seated across the aisle from the film star Errol Flynn, who, along with a girlfriend, was also leaving the country. Even while fleeing Cuba after the revolution, Mr. Fanjul was surrounded by a dash of glamour.

For most other Cubans, airline flights and movie stars were well out of reach, a measure of Mr. Fanjul's privileged upbringing. When Pepe, Alfy and their three siblings left Cuba for the United States, they were forced to abandon most of the family's art and its other wealth. The family owned some real estate in Manhattan and had other money invested abroad by their parents, but their exile marked a sharp comedown. "The family was in a state of shock," Pepe Fanjul said. "We knew our parents would live comfortably, but not us. So we were challenged."

Over the next four decades, however, the Fanjuls - under Alfy's initial direction - wove shrewd and risky deal making, some well-greased political connections and a belief in Florida's economic future into a new sugar empire. Their privately held company, Flo-Sun, is now a leading sugar producer in the United States and in the Dominican Republic; the family has also expanded into resorts, hotels and other real estate ventures.

Over the years, Flo-Sun has also been the object of some of the same criticisms that the Fanjuls experienced in Cuba, including accusations of abusing sugar workers and harming the environment. The family has strongly disputed the contentions. Pepe Fanjul, who has lavishly contributed to Republican candidates, and Alfy, who has done the same for Democrats, describe themselves as close brothers who maintain their political differences. Other political analysts attribute their bipartisan fund-raising to a calculated strategy of making sure that all political bases are covered.

Whatever the case, the Fanjul brothers have pursued their financial and political goals with unvarnished determination, and they are bringing that same brio to the hunt for their Sorolla.

When Mr. Sorolla's great-granddaughter casually mentioned to Pepe Fanjul in 1998 that Sotheby's asked her to authenticate "Malaga Port" three years earlier, he was dumbfounded. "I thought she was wrong, confused," he said.

The Fanjuls had already taken all of the steps that art owners can take when they believe that one of their works has gone missing. Art that has been off the market for many years is difficult to value, though some experts said high-quality Sorollas now fetched about $2 million to $3 million at auctions.

The family began keeping an eye on the Cuban collection in the early 1990's.

"So long as the collection remained in the Museum of Decorative Arts, we were willing to wait out the end of the regime," Alfy Fanjul said. "After the fall of the Soviet Union, we became concerned that the collection might be removed from Cuba and sold off for hard currency by the Cuban government."

To forestall that possibility, the Fanjuls in 1993 registered the works, including "Malaga Port," with the Art Loss Register, a British and American service that tracks lost and stolen art. When Art Loss began compiling its database in 1991, it listed 20,000 artworks. Today it lists about 145,000.

"There is no oversight of dealers, and the art market thrives on confidentiality," said David Shillingford, the director of operations at Art Loss. "When we first came along it was clear that we weren't welcome in the art world because we were seen as creating a problem rather than providing a solution. That's changed completely."

Sotheby's itself invested in the register in 1997 as part of an increased effort to track art looted from victims of the Holocaust. Other investors include Christie's, Sotheby's chief rival in the auction business, and a number of insurance companies. Since the early 1990's, the register's database has offered auction houses and dealers a convenient place to assess the provenance of artworks.

The Fanjuls also sent letters to Sotheby's, Christie's and other auction houses in 1993, notifying them that the family believed it was the rightful owner of the Cuban Sorollas. The Fanjuls have ample evidence, including photographs and catalogs, to back up that claim - though asserting ownership of art that has been seized by a government through an act of state, or has simply gone missing for decades, is notoriously difficult to do in court.

"Obviously, if and when the Castro regime falls there's going to be some kind of analog to the Nazi art that was confiscated during World War II," said Dr. Marcus Burke, paintings curator at the Hispanic Society of America in New York. "But it's not a direct analog, because the Nazi art was taken at knife-point whereas Cuba was engaged in a civil war and a new government was established that had a claim to legitimacy."Indeed, other legal efforts to recover Cuban art that the Castro government seized through an act of state have foundered, even as the Fanjuls and others contend that Cuban officials have sold expropriated art overseas for years to line their own pockets. The Fanjuls considered taking legal action in Italy in 1965 and in Spain in the mid-1990's to seize artwork from their Cuban collection that had surfaced in those countries, but lawyers advised them that expropriations by act of state were usually insurmountable.

IN 1995, the Cintas Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports the arts, sued Sotheby's in Spain, contending that years earlier it illegally sold two Cuban Sorollas that the foundation believed that it owned. The Spanish court ruled against Cintas, citing legal technicalities other than act-of-state issues.

Then, in 1998, the Fanjuls learned that "Malaga Port" had been held in Sotheby's London office from 1993 to 1995. In the ensuing years, the Fanjuls and Sotheby's engaged in a tug of war, with Sotheby's asserting that it was helping the family to the fullest extent possible, and the Fanjuls contending that they were being stonewalled.

"We put the Fanjul family's lawyers in touch with the lawyers for the current owner in 1998 so that they could resolve any issue they had with them directly," said Ms. Phillips, the Sotheby's spokeswoman. "This is our standard practice in such cases as, given our fiduciary obligations to our clients, we cannot simply provide their identities to third parties. To our knowledge, however, in the six years that have intervened, they have never initiated any legal action to recover the painting or to learn the identity of the current owner."

But the Fanjuls maintain that the courts, because of act-of-state protections, are not the best avenues for recovering their art from Cuba. Instead, the family is now flexing its political muscles by requesting investigations of possible trade sanction violations by Sotheby's - involving some of the very laws that Congress passed after strong prodding by the Fanjuls and other anti-Castro activists. And the Fanjuls say they think Sotheby's has much more to explain.

"We think they have a lot of information about how the painting got from Cuba to Europe," said Shanker Singham, a lawyer for the Fanjuls. "We also believe that there was likely some form of arrangement for other paintings, and we would like to know about those also. It was by a combination of skill and luck that we tracked this painting, but we know that Sotheby's has a lot of information about other Cuban transactions."

Tracing stolen or smuggled paintings that are winding their way through the art underworld is never easy. Much of the information surrounding such trafficking is clouded by gossip and myth. Dr. Burke and other art analysts say they think that over the years Japanese investors, Arab sheiks and other wealthy aficionados have been the primary buyers of pricey stolen art.

Others disagree. "People like to come up with the idea that there's some reclusive billionaire behind these thefts, but I think that's just Hollywood," said Mr. Shillingford of the Art Loss Register. "More often than not it's organized crime behind the thefts, I think."

But if figuring out who smuggles art is tricky, determining where the art is marketed is less so. That is because there are only a few places with the necessary infrastructure. Experts said that the Sorolla's path from Cuba was, more likely than not, through Europe.

"I wouldn't be shocked if it went out through Italy," said Harold J. Smith, an art investigator who has worked on a number of significant cases. "Italy crosses borders with Switzerland and France and it's easy to move art by truck from there. A lot of stolen art moves out of Italy."

In fact, Mr. Singham, the Fanjuls' lawyer, picked up on the trail of "Malaga Port" after parsing court documents in the Cintas case, and the path took him to Italy.

The documents reviewed by Mr. Singham indicated that a former Sotheby's employee, Alex Apsis, had overseen Cuban and other Latin American artworks for the auction house in the 1990's, and therefore might have had some knowledge of how the Sorollas were being handled.

Mr. Apsis joined the London office of Sotheby's in 1974 and moved to its New York branch in 1992. In the mid-1990's, the former president of Sotheby's, Diana D. Brooks, made him head of the auction house's Impressionist and modern art division. He left Sotheby's in 1999 and is now an independent dealer.

Mr. Apsis is no stranger to controversy. In 2002, during the Manhattan District Attorney's tax fraud investigation of L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former Tyco International chief executive, law enforcement officials found evidence that Mr. Apsis may have helped Mr. Kozlowski and another wealthy buyer avoid paying hefty sales taxes on some artworks. While Mr. Kozlowski is now contesting tax fraud and other charges in court, Mr. Apsis has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Mr. Singham got his next lead from a book about Sotheby's by Peter Watson, a British journalist who has also written recently about the Fanjul dispute for The Times of London. His book briefly mentioned Mr. Apsis, saying Bruno Scaioli, an art dealer in Alessandria, Italy, used Mr. Apsis's London address to ship art. In 2000, the Fanjuls' lawyers hired a private investigator who visited Mr. Scaioli in Italy - where the investigator found "Malaga Port."

According to the Fanjuls' investigator, Mr. Scaioli said that he sold art through Sotheby's, that he had obtained "Malaga Port" from a Cuban museum more than a decade earlier, that the painting was "in some way connected with Sotheby's" as late as 1998, and that he routinely shipped artwork to London through a free-trade zone in Switzerland to avoid British import taxes.

Mr. Scaioli could not be reached for comment, and his London lawyer did not return requests for comment. Mr. Apsis, in a brief telephone interview last week, said that he knows Mr. Scaioli. "But I don't want to go into all that," he said.

"I know nothing about this whole Fanjul thing," he added. "That happened after I left the Impressionist department at Sotheby's."

Since finding "Malaga Port" in Italy, the Fanjuls have monitored the painting's whereabouts, but they say they are not entirely sure it remains in Mr. Scaioli's possession. They continue to consider legal options to secure the painting, while pressing their work with their interests in Congress and at the White House. With Cuba now higher on the Bush administration's agenda, they said, they believe the time is ripe for the State Department and the Treasury Department to investigate the matter.

THE Fanjuls have enlisted the help of an old friend: Ms. Harris, the former Florida secretary of state, who is now a congresswoman. She recently wrote to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, asking him about the status of the Fanjuls' claim that Sotheby's and others have violated trade sanctions against Cuba by dealing in the Sorolla.

A State Department official responded to Ms. Harris about 10 days ago, saying that the agency was investigating the claim and was "committed to aggressively pursuing" cases involving "foreign nationals trafficking in confiscated property."

For his part, Pepe Fanjul says that he has been trying to reclaim his family's artwork since 1959 and that he wishes he had "45 more years" to pursue that goal. But he also says he does not think he will have to wait that long.

"I think that the Cuban government or whoever fronts for Castro and his henchmen are using this Sorolla to test the market," he said. "I'm not fighting this because it's the most valuable Sorolla we have. It's about property rights and my family's heritage."

Pausing for a moment, he offered another thought: "When I see those things being sold, I feel outraged."