When Gil Marmol and his family fled Cuba in 1961 the revolutionary government seized 17 paintings that they left behind, including two watercolors by Mexico’s Diego Rivera.
Years later, he discovered that one of the works was smuggled abroad and then sold at auction in New York in 1995 to an unknown buyer. That was the only real trace of the Marmols’ collection, just some of the artwork confiscated in the early years of the revolution that will prove difficult to recover even as the island normalizes relations with the United States.
Cuban Americans like Marmol could be fighting for decades more to win back paintings and other artwork lost in Cuba due to protracted legal struggles and because many of the items have disappeared.
“I encourage people to seek their property...but finding movable items like paintings or jewelry is particularly difficult,” said Tania Mastrapa, a consultant on property rights in former Communist countries.
For example, descendants of White Russians who lost property in the Russian Revolution a century ago are still trying to recover paintings to this day, she said.
In the early 1960s, specialized Cuban government teams sealed the homes of wealthy exiles and took away paintings, antiques and jewelry. Some of the goods, such as one of the world’s largest collections of Napoleonic memorabilia that was amassed by sugar baron Julio Lobo, were housed in Cuban museums where they remain. The Cuban government says it now owns works like that because they were abandoned.
Other confiscated pieces were auctioned off to the public or smuggled overseas, mostly to Europe, either by corrupt Cuban officials or by the government itself when it needed hard currency, art experts say.
While political change in Cuba will take years despite improved relations with the US, Cuban Americans hope that Havana will eventually return confiscated homes, businesses and artwork or compensate them.
The art seized ranges from family portraits of little financial value to Cuban and European paintings from the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mastrapa said. One wealthy family, the Fanjuls, lost an art collection valued at up to US$60 million. It included more than a dozen works by Spanish impressionist Joaquin Sorolla and a Michelangelo pencil drawing.
There could be hundreds of claims for works of art as Cuba and the US restore relations, said Mari-Claudia Jimenez, a New York lawyer who specializes in trying to recover confiscated art from Cuba.
But the government and courts in the US are limited in what they can do to win reimbursement for artwork, businesses and property owned by individual Cuban Americans as most of them were not US citizens when they fled Cuba.
Cuban exiles might have to wait until Cuba opens up and then go to court there to seek restitution.
“We get calls once every few months from someone who is looking to recover their artwork and certainly I think there has been an increase in those calls lately,” said Jimenez, of law firm Herrick, Feinstein LLP. “People are starting to ready themselves to try to think of ‘How am I going to deal with going back to Cuba? Am I going to get anything back?’”
She says she tells potential clients that it is too early to know how Cuban politics will play out but that now is a good time to start assembling documents proving ownership.
In a few cases over the years, auctioneers have mediated between the original owners of valuable items seized in Cuba and later buyers of the confiscated works to resolve claims.
No one has a definitive dollar figure for the artwork, antiques and other valuable assets seized in Cuba.
Before making any claims, Cuban Americans first have to find their art.
Exile Marmol, 61, tried to track down his family’s paintings after his father died in 2009 but it was a frustrating search.
The Dallas-based businessman located only one piece: the painting Hombre Cargando Alcatraces by Rivera. He discovered through searching the Internet and speaking to a friend in the auction world that the painting had been sold by Sotheby’s in New York for US$145,500 in 1995.
He said Sotheby’s refused to tell him who bought the painting because of client confidentiality but they wrote to the buyer to point out his claim of ownership.
“The purchaser responded that he did not recognize the painting, that he had no record of purchasing it and he maintained this position,” said Marmol.
Sotheby’s in New York confirmed Marmol’s version of events but declined to comment further.
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