A week before the Christie's auction of Latin American art took place last November, a group of collectors of Cuban paintings arrived in New York, headed by the publisher Ramón Cernuda, who had been tipped off as to the situation, to try to persuade Christie's to withdraw some of the lots on the grounds that they were fakes.
Getting Christie's to acknowledge the error and withdraw the paintings in question, when they had already sent catalogues around the world and were counting on potential buyers, would be akin to asking them to drop their trousers in public. But the collectors were armed with solid arguments backed up by the opinions of specialists such as Ramón Vazquez and Alejandro Alonso. They also had the technical wherewithal to demonstrate that, among other things, some of the paintings were not even painted in oils, as was claimed in the catalogue.
The Carreños were certified by the wife of the painter, who is known to have a somewhat limited knowledge of her husband’s work; moreover the certificates themselves may even have been faked.
Whoever it was that dared to falsify the works by Esteban Chartrand failed to take into account the fact that Ramón Cernuda is a specialist on the work of this painter, whose book on the subject is about to be published.
No one could remember seeing the painting by Portocarrero, which was supposedly from the very well known collection of Graciela de Armas, not even a maid who lived in the flat upstairs.
Mariano’s son failed to recognise his own father’s signature on one of the paintings. Surely it is not mere coincidence that every one of these paintings came complete with signature and date? In previous years the same artists had never shown too much concern over such details, frequently omitting the date and sometimes the signature.
The fundamental question was: where had these paintings been for the last fifty to 128 years, if nobody remembered them?
The Christie's staff and the collectors collaborated for a week, until what had been suspected turned out to be scientifically proven. In the face of the results, the auction house withdrew six of the paintings (lots 13, 27, 42, 46 and 285 a and b). And yet more of the paintings should have been withdrawn, as demonstrated by the fact that nobody attempted to buy them.
Without entering into chemical equations, just as an example, lot 42 (see “Dos mujeres” below) was supposedly painted in 1944 (it is signed “Carreño—44”) yet scientific examination revealed that the work comprised components which were not available on the market until many years after the date on the painting.
The other works submitted for analysis also failed to stand up to analysis, which included the solvent test that makes acrylic but not oil paint run. (Hardly any of the masters worked with acrylic.) Furthermore, the fakers cannot reproduce ageing with the layers of accumulated deposits.
To be fair, the specialists at the auction houses are not entirely to blame for this debacle. There are too few of them for the volume of work required, and they do not have suitable research space in which to carry out their investigations. Most surprisingly, neither Christie's nor Sotheby’s has a laboratory, so that in the event of an emergency like this, they have to ask for help from the museums, such as MoMA or the Met.
Ramón Cernuda believes that a recommendation should be made to the Cuban government that they take action to help combat this cultural disgrace. As he said to our sister paper, El Periodico del Arte: “No responsible person should let this happen, because by doing so they are condoning the enrichment of a few, while seriously damaging Cuba’s artistic and cultural heritage” which, wherever it may be physically, belongs to everyone, be they in or outside the country.
He points out that there was a time when the National Museum of Cuba could count on a capable and well respected commission capable of issuing certificates of authenticity. For some reason which is not clear this no longer operates.
On the other hand, last November an international seminar took place in Havana to study Cuban art in the twentieth century, but even though the issue of fakes is such a burning one, it was not even touched upon.
For those who are contributing to this epidemic from inside Cuba (allegedly there is a workshop known as the School of Santa Fe) these fakes are their livelihood in the current dire economic situation on the island.
Those who are in the external network (apparently the School of Mexico also exists...) represent a much more sordid trade in which they stand to make anything between $100,000 and $200,000 overnight from the sale of a single painting.
The rectification of this situation reduced the sale total at Christie's by a probable half a million dollars.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Christie’s sale loses a probable half million over withdrawn paintings'