Cuba: The Next Art Collecting Frontier

With the diplomatic thaw currently underway between the United States and Cuba, there are many in the American business community who are considering how to take advantage of potential commercial opportunities on the island. Europeans and others have been investing in the communist holdout for some time now, but when it comes to areas like the automobile or travel industries, no one does it quite as thoroughly as we Yanks do, once we decide to invest in a particular country. After all, Cuba was America’s preferred international playground for many years before the Castro dictatorship, thanks to its beautiful towns and beaches, exciting nightlife, and of course its close geographical proximity to Florida.

One highly lucrative area of commerce in this developing scenario, which the average consumer might forget about, is the art trade. Despite its comparatively small population – more people live in Tokyo than on the entire island of Cuba – Cuban artists have long been collected internationally. Moreover, those who were unable to take their fine and decorative art with them when they fled the Reds, may soon see their long-vanished silver and porcelain appearing in auction catalogues. As American dealers make inroads into the Cuban economy, and as wealthy Americans start to vacation and retire there once again, no doubt there will be a significant revenue boom for the art and antiques trade.  

An interesting question in this context, which I certainly do not have the expertise to answer, is whether such works will be allowed to leave the island itself, particularly if they are claimed by their original owners. Despite the current, thawing climate, I cannot imagine that a family of Cuban exile descent would be able to petition that a particular object be returned to them, even if they can convincingly establish its provenance pre-Castro. Such reclamation efforts have been institutionalized in certain circumstances, such as in the ongoing repatriation of World War II loot, or in the case of banished aristocrats reclaiming their ancestral properties in Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism there. Yet even where the parties at issue are dealing with democratically elected governments and duly enacted laws, the end results have not always been ideal, as the current debacle over the so-called “Nazi Art Hoard” demonstrates.

Of course, much of the great European art displayed in American museums came to these shores through equally unfortunate political or personal circumstances. The core collection of the National Gallery of Art, for example, was assembled by FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, beginning with a purchase of 21 masterpieces from The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. The curators there had been forced into selling these works by Stalin, who needed cash to finance his infamous Five-Year Plans. The sale included Raphael’s “Alba Madonna” and “St. George and the Dragon”, Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi”, and van Eyck’s “Annunciation”, along with other significant religious works, as well as magnificent portraits by Rembrandt, van Dyck, and others. How they must have wept over saying goodbye to these beautiful things in the name of blood-stained socialist atheism.

One suspects that there is no possibility of art which is currently held in public collections in Cuba meeting a similar fate. However the fate of privately held objects is of particular interest, given that one can assume the bulk of it to be of questionable ownership. Again, I do not pretend to be an expert on this subject, and leave it to my readers to enlighten all of us in the comments section.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to think what might be coming onto the market in the coming years as Cuba opens up to American art dealers. In particular, given Cuba’s close commercial and social ties with Catalonia in the 19th and early 20thcenturies, I personally will be very interested to see whether we see hitherto lost or forgotten works by great Catalan artists and designers begin to appear on the market. Will a twisted suite of dining chairs by Gaudí, or a glowing painting by Casas long thought to be lost, now emerge back into the light?

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The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1478/1482)

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