It was both dispiriting and unsurprising to hear the other day that nearly 100 artworks had been stolen from storage at Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts.
Dispiriting because there are hints, as the story has been reported, that the heist was an inside job and possibly accomplished with the knowledge of the Cuban government. Unsurprising for the very same reasons.
So far nearly a dozen of the works have turned up for sale in at least one Miami art gallery. One well-known Cuban-American collector and dealer in Miami purchased a piece, then discovered its connection to the museum in Havana. The collector alerted the museum a few weeks ago and apparently has turned the painting over to the FBI.
All of the paintings discovered so far were knifed out of their frames in a warehouse. The frames were re-stacked in a way that the canvases’ absence wasn’t readily noticed.
Whoever hauled the pieces off and placed them in South Florida and, presumably, elsewhere must have been aware of a rising market in Cuban art. Perhaps it’s another sign of Cuba’s economic desperation, like the shipment of old Russian jets and radar equipment that was buried underneath sacks of sugar on a freighter bound for North Korea and stopped last year in Panama.
The Cuban museum has been urged to report the thefts to one or more of the agencies that track stolen art — the FBI, Interpol or the Art Loss Register in London.
Several of the paintings have been identified as the work of a 19th- and 20th-century Cuban artist, Leopoldo Romanach.
Jose Antonio Menendez, director of Cuba’s National Registry of Cultural Objects, confirmed that some of the missing works had been found in Florida, according to the Associated Press.
"The investigation is developing," Menendez said, "and we are concluding an inventory that will be made public."
How much more we can learn about the theft in Havana — and what it means to the Cuban government — remains to be seen.
Steve Paul is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
— Kansas City Star