Another mess: Reclaiming seized art

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A New York lawyer is calling on museum curators in Cuba and elsewhere to begin looking for ways to compensate the owners of artwork seized during the early days of the Cuban revolution.
Wendy Dickieson, of the firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP, wrote:

Cuba cannot truly begin the process of normalization with these stolen treasures still hanging in state-funded museums as trophies of the Castro regime’s brutality. Auction houses and dealers should also increase their vigilance and fully investigate the provenance of works that potentially originated in the Cuba. A dedicated international registry for Cuba’s expropriated art, like the one that exists for property looted by the Nazis, would be helpful in this effort to return confiscated works to their rightful owners.

Wendy Dickieson

Dickieson, whose article was published earlier this year in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, said the United States must “insist on restitution of nationalized U.S. property.” She wrote:

…the alternative should be a settlement strategy that includes lump-sum settlements for U.S. claims…

The U.S. should also improve relations with Cuba, she said.

…The U.S. needs to continue Obama’s process of normalizing ties with Cuba, and repeal the Helms-Burton Act and other economic sanctions once and for all.

Dickieson wrote that after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, his government “began a program of mass nationalization of the island nation’s artistic heritage.” She wrote:

The Office for the Recovery of State Assets, together with the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, brought previously private collections of art and patrimony into the state repository, as agents centralized works that had been in the country homes of fleeing families. In the decades since, claims have piled up: nationalized U.S. citizens who had been living in Cuba up to and during the revolution now seek to have their art returned to them. Many of the works have ended up outside of Cuba, raising issues of international law and property rights. But many items are in the Cuban state collections…

Dickieson said both Americans and Cubans owned artwork in Cuba before the revolution. She wrote:

At the time Castro’s revolutionary government came to power, U.S. financial interests on the island included 90% of Cuban mines, 80% of public utilities, 50% of railways, 40% of sugar production, and 25% of bank deposits – about $1 billion in total.
This influx of investment had transformed Havana into a haven for wealthy Cuban nationals and international businessmen. This moneyed class lived in urban mansions that ranged in style from neo-classical to art nouveau and art deco, and decorated their homes with art from both native Cuban artists and masterpieces of European art history.
Their wealth made them a target of the revolutionary government’s seizures, and many departed the island in the months following Castro’s ascension to power. Most traveled to the U.S., believing Castro’s new government would not last long, and that their stay in the U.S. was only temporary. These refugees left their homes, cars, and other property with friends and relatives, planning to return when the regime fell.
But the regime never faltered. Rather, it grew in strength, continuing its nationalization programs and forming committees tasked with keeping “vigilance against counter-revolutionary activity,” keeping a detailed record of spending habits, citizens’ level of contact with foreigners, national work and education history, and any “suspicious” behavior.

Dickieson said much of the confiscated art wound up in warehouses along Avenida del Puerto in Havana or “ended up decorating Castro’s Palace of the Revolution.” She wrote:

A large number of masterpieces were brought into the collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. According to a former registrar, out of the roughly 50,000 items in the museum’s collection, approximately 60-70% were confiscated from their owners after the 1959 Castro takeover.

Dickieson said that as the museum sees it, wealthy Cubans who left Cuba “abandoned” much of the artwork. She said the museum catalog explained the history as follows:

When these art works are abandoned by their owners, the government moves them into State-run institutions. For this aim and faced with the necessity of putting on trial those persons who had committed acts of corruption, those who had collaborated with the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, the Office for the Recovery of State Assets is created to retrieve for the nation a great part of the aforementioned treasure and to place it at the service of the people and the nation.

Julio Lobo. Photo: ABC

Some art collections were left in mansions once owned by Cuba’s industrialists. She wrote:

The homes and possessions, such as those belonging to Julio Lobo, were deemed to be “left in the care of the Cuban government.” Lobo’s collection is by far the most noteworthy that met this fate. At the time of the revolution, Lobo was the wealthiest of the island’s sugar barons, with a fortune valued at $200 million (about $5 billion in today’s dollars). He possessed a large collection of notable paintings, including several El Greco pictures, a Rembrandt landscape, two Renoir nudes, and a Tintoretto, as well as the largest collection of Napoleonic memorabilia outside of France.
Targeted by the new socialist government due to his wealth and large art collection, Lobo fled to New York in October 1960. He was only able to take a small suitcase out of the country, and was forced to leave behind his collections of paintings and rare books, his palaces, and his vast fortune. Castro’s organization quickly moved the priceless treasures into “La Dolce Dimora,” the 1929-built Florentine Renaissance style mansion of Orestes Ferrara, an Italian-Cuban politician who also fled the island after Castro’s rise to power. Like Lobo’s, upon his self-imposed exile, Ferrara’s home and massive art collection became the property of “la Dirección de Patrimonio Cultural de la Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad.”
But most of the art that had been in the homes of Cuba’s elite ultimately left the island. Alberto Bustamante, the chairman of the Cuban National Heritage, estimates that more than a million paintings, sculptures, rare books, furniture, architectural details, jewelry, and other objects were sent out of Cuba for sale abroad between the 1960s and the 1990s. The proceeds went directly to the Castro regime. But the victims of these nationalizations did not stay quiet. Once in the safe haven of the U.S., individuals and companies that had had their property confiscated utilized a variety of legal avenues in attempt to regain their property, or at least be compensated for their losses.

The family of Olga Lengyel is among those that has tried to obtain compensation for seized art. Dickieson wrote:

Lengyel was born in 1908 in a part of Hungary that later became Romania. During World War II, she was deported—along with her husband, parents, and two children—to the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp. She was the only member of her family to survive. At the end of the war Lengyel moved to New York, before ultimately settling in Havana. After Castro’s Revolution, Lengyel and her husband fled Cuba and resettled in New York City in 1960.

Olga Lengyel later submitted a claim for property she left in Cuba. Dickieson wrote:

Lengyel’s collection consisted primarily of landscapes by the likes of Fragonard, Van Ruysdael, Van Goyen, Memling, and Manet. But her appraiser was at a significant disadvantage: he needed to provide values for Lengyel’s written list of about 30 pictures without the benefit of full details of the works, and with only a few photographs of the works in situ.

Dickieson wrote that the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission concluded that “the evidence was insufficient to support claimant’s assertions either as to the number and identities of the paintings or as to the values thereof” on the date of loss, October 14, 1960 —the day of the passage of the relevant expropriation laws.” She wrote:

Rather, the Commission concluded that the valuation most appropriate to the property and equitable to the claimant is a pre-revolution appraisal made by the curator who had helped Lengyel’s father assemble the collection. Thus, the Commission certified Lengyel’s loss as $240,000.
However, Lengyel was never able to claim that sum because of the lack of Cuban funds available in the U.S.

Frustrated with their experiences with the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, many Cuban families search for other ways to reclaim their art.
Dickieson wrote:

The most notable confiscated art collection in Cuba belongs to the Fanjul family. The Fanjuls were part of a great sugar dynasty in the first half of the 20th century and fled the island in 1959, leaving behind great works of art by Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla, among many others. The Fanjuls’ art collection was “recovered” by the Castro government and placed in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana. During the 1990s-economic downturn, one Sorolla painting was quietly removed from the museum to be sold on the international art market to raise cash for the struggling regime.
Upon discovering that Sotheby’s was considering selling the painting on behalf of a European client, the Fanjuls filed a claim with the U.S. State Department alleging that Sotheby’s had a pattern of “trading with the enemy” and trafficking in expropriated Cuban property. Under Title IV of the Helms-Burton Act, such actions could be the basis for a denial of U.S. visas to Sotheby’s executives, or up to ten years in jail. Alas, the multiyear family effort has not resulted in the return of the painting. The picture is currently believed to be in the hands of a private collector in Europe, and the family has added it to the International Art Loss Register. Sotheby’s now issues guidelines on steps to take regarding any work that comes into the auction house’s possession that are owned by the Gómez-Mena family, to which the Fanjuls are heirs. Family spokesperson, Pepe Fanjul, stated: “We hope that this [ . . . ] will be a lesson for all in the art world that all these paintings in Cuba or with a Cuban source are strictly off limits.”

Dickieson doesn’t believe claimants of nationalized art will find relief anytime soon. But some claimants have been compensated for art taken out of Cuba. She cited a case involving “Sin Titulo” (Suenos Arcabes), a painting by Wifredo Lam.

Sin Titulo (Sueños Arcabes), Wilfredo Lam. Credit: Cernuda Arte

Dickieson wrote:

The heirs of Rene Diaz de Villegas, who left Cuba after Castro seized power, saw an image of the painting in a full-page ad for a dealer’s booth at Art Basel Miami in 2015. Armed with a photograph of the painting hanging in the family’s dining room in Cuba in October 1959, the Diaz de Villegas family contacted the gallery representing the seller, demanding return. The seller refuted the family’s claim that the Castro government had seized the painting upon Diaz de Villegas’ flight from the island, and said that the emigrant had in fact donated the work to the Franciscan order and the monastery of San Antonio de Padua in Havana, where it remained until 1996 (when it was sold to fund building improvements at the monastery).
Jiménez represented the family as they sought a declaratory judgment that Diaz de Villegas was the bona fide purchaser of the painting and the defendant consigner did not have any ownership interests. But there had never been a decision by a U.S. court regarding Cuban art that favored claimants, and this case did not break that custom. A settlement was reached out of court, with the heirs receiving undisclosed compensation from the current holder of the work.

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