There are a lot of museums in Europe, mostly France, and a lot of collectors in Europe and Asia, and several major auction houses that are nervously looking to what happens in Cuba once its brutal dictatorship finally ends.
They are nervous because worldwide courts have consistently recognized the right of original owners to the return of artwork which has been looted by governments and dictatorships, confiscated, sold and re-sold.
It has taken in some cases several decades for the artwork to return to the familial descendants of the original and rightful owners, but essentially international law is pretty clear on the subject that generally no government can confiscate private property.
There are, of course, many dictatorships worldwide where one of the foundations of those regimes is that private citizens under their yoke cannot own private property.
It occurred to me recently that when the current Cuban dictatorship took control of that unfortunate island on January 1, 1959, one of the first things that they did after they executed thousands of people, burned and banned books, jailed all political opposition, and closed down newspapers and magazines, was to confiscate most private property.
And there was a lot of artwork confiscated in Cuba; stolen from their rightful owners. A lot of that artwork in now in Europe.
We’ve been led to believe that in 1959 Cuba was just another Latin American cesspool, but the facts are that in 1959 Cuba had one of the highest standards of living of any nation in the Americas and a higher per capita income than several European nations and higher than Japan, as well as a positive immigration flow from Europe to Cuba, as well as the third highest protein consumption in the Western Hemisphere. Today the island’s food rations are actually lower than the slave rations mandated by the Spanish King in 1842.
The island also had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world, ranked ahead of France, West Germany, Belgium, Japan, Austria, Italy and Spain. The average wage of a Cuban worker was higher than for workers in West Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium and in the late 50s Cuban labor received 66.6 per cent of the nation’s GNP, again higher than several European nations (the US figure is 68%). And the 8 hour week was mandated by law in Cuba in 1933, five years before FDR’s New Deal got to doing it in the US. And in the 1950s, 44% of Cubans were covered by social legislation, a higher percent than the US at that time.
And while we’ve been led to also believe that Cuban peasants and farm workers lived in a near feudal state, the average farm wage in Cuba in 1959 ($3.00 a day) was higher than those of farm workers in France ($2.73), Belgium ($2.70), Denmark ($2.74) or Germany ($2.73). In the US it was $4.06. And in 1959 only 34% of the Cuban population was rural and the nation had the lowest inflation rate in the Americas, 1.4% - the US was at 2.73%
So this was not a nation mired in poverty, as we have been led to believe, but a nation under the yoke of a very brutal dictator in the person of Fulgencio Batista.
The very wealthy Cuban upper and business class hated Batista and became the financial backers of the Castro Revolution, raising millions of dollars for the rebels. They also owned many art masterpieces from both European and Latin American masters.
As a thank you, nearly all of this work was confiscated by the Castro dictatorship and by 1961 most of the best work had made its way to government-owned museums and collections, and most of the owners had made their way to the United States in the largest proportional mass exodus in contemporary history.
When the abomination known as the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s and Cuba’s sugar daddy stopped sending billions of dollars in subsidy to the Castro brothers, the Cuban economy collapsed, and one of the results of that collapse was the mass selling, by the Cuban government, of those confiscated masterpieces, most of which found their way to European museums and European and Asian private collections via French auction houses. Thus many masterpieces once owned by the Fanjul family, or the Bacardi family, or by sugar magnate Julio Lobo (whose interest in Napoleonic memorabilia led to him amassing one of the world’s largest collections of Bonaparte memorabilia such as weapons, furniture, paintings, letters, etc.) were sold to European museums and collectors.
But now I think that the end of the brutal Castro dictatorship is nigh, and one day soon, when the rule of law and democracy and freedom returns to Cuba, one of the first things that the descendants of those families should do is to go after whoever now possesses their families’ stolen artwork and goods, and in some cases even copyrights.
And the details of these illegal sales have left bloody footprints. For example, according to Maritza Beato’s excellent article in El Nuevo Herald titled “El Saqueo del Patrimonio Cultural Cubano” (The Looting of the Cuban Cultural Patrimony), the sale of the Julio Lobo Napoleonic collection to a French museum was orchestrated by a French official attached to the French Embassy in Havana. His name is Antoine Anvil.
And if I was one of those auction houses or museums in Europe or collectors or dealers around the world, I’d be a little nervous.
What goes around comes around.