Cuban Booty: The Art of Looting
Excerpts from an article appearing in the summer edition of the German art journal KUR by our good friend Tania Mastrapa, Ph.D. For those interested in Cuba's looted art, Dr. Mastrapa will be holding a conference in Miami on July 20th addressing the thefts in Cuba as well as the USSR, Nazi Germany, and other communist countries:
1959 was the year that changed the lives of Cubans forever. Fidel Castro and his revolution successfully toppled the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship and promised a return to democracy with the restoration of the 1940 constitution and free elections. Cubans and the rest of the world are still waiting. After public denials of support for Communism, Castro later confirmed his inclinations and the ultimate goal of the revolution – a Communist state. Yet, already in 1959 the signs were visibly present as the regime first authorized the confiscation of alleged Batistiano property. The regime soon confiscated real property and its contents from other Cubans, foreigners, churches, private schools, class enemies, political prisoners, and refugees. All Communist regimes, starting with that of Soviet Russia, raised hard currency (read: Western money) by covertly and overtly selling the loot to foreigners. Communist Cuba has not strayed from the pattern set by its predecessors.
The revolutionary regime in Cuba immediately set out to punish all those allegedly and genuinely linked to the fallen dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The creation of the Ministerio de la Recuperación de Bienes Malversados or Ministry for the Recovery of Misappropriated Assets (sometimes translated as Ministry for the Recovery Stolen Property) was authorized to confiscate any and all property of so-called Batista collaborators. The regime was rather fast and loose with this categorization to say the least. The first Ministry auction in 1960 “1a Subasta de Joyas y Antigüedades” offered for sale chandeliers, fur coats, jewelry, paintings, stamp collections and china sets among other personal assets. Although some items were clearly slated for transfer to Cuban cultural institutes it is unlikely that all were sold. The descriptions of some listings seem to match those of items sold at auction at later dates. For instance, another auction in Havana offered for sale pre-Revolution jewelry, silverware, and precious metal purses among other items that may have been part of the early loot.
There are a variety of undocumented cases of looted property based on exile anecdotes. Certainly some of the most painful tales recount the stripping of sentimental possessions such as signed baseballs, wedding rings, and engraved heirloom watches by airport authorities before departing the island forever. Shortly after the 1959 revolution, one family found the entire contents of their dining room in a Mexico City antiques store. Some have seen their jewelry worn by regime children at Communist “society” events in newspaper pictures. Family portraits have been spotted at antiques shows and, most egregiously, in the homes of other exiles.
On July 20, 2013 a one-day conference titled “The Art of Looting” featuring Christopher A. Marinello of The Art Loss Register, Willi Korte of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) and others will cover Soviet, Nazi and Communist looting of artworks, antiques, jewelry and other valuables. Speakers will also discuss the sales and trafficking of these items from Cuba and the prospects for recovering them. For details visit: http://mastrapaconsultants.com/events