When an Ecuadorean businessman bought a $150,000 painting by the late Cuban master Mario Carreño from a prominent Coral Gables art gallery, he made sure the owner also gave him a certificate of authenticity.
But a lawsuit charges that Elite Fine Art’s owner, Jose Martínez-Cañas, forged the document, using the name of a curator at the National Museum of Cuba, the foremost expert on Carreño’s work.
David Goldbaum, who bought Mujer en balancín (Woman on Swing) from Martínez-Cañas in 1999, says he discovered the certificate and oil painting were forgeries in February when he tried to have the artwork sold by Christie’s, the New York auction house.
‘My client called [Martínez-Cañas] twice and said, `I’ll give you back the painting if you give me back the money,’ ‘’ said Goldbaum’s attorney, Yvette Murphy, who filed suit in late April. “He refused.’‘
‘‘All I know is the painting is good,’’ Martínez-Cañas, 66, told The Herald.
During the past two decades, Martínez-Cañas has built a reputation as one of South Florida’s leading dealers of Latin American art. That market—including 1940s-era paintings by Carreño and other artists of Cuba’s modernist movement—became red hot in the 1990s, experts say. But they say the market also gained notoriety for the wave of counterfeits that flooded galleries and auction houses worldwide.
Fakery in the field fooled even Christie’s. The New York auction house had to withdraw a number of Cuban paintings—including works by Carreño—from its 1997 Latin American art auction.
Juan Martínez, associate professor of art history at Florida International University, said the sizzling international art market of the 1990s—coupled with Miami’s boom, Cuba’s slump, the limited supply of original paintings and the inability to authenticate those works on the island—created a ‘‘vacuum’’ for forgeries.
‘‘It was a huge crisis,’’ said Martínez, author of Cuban Art and National Identity: The Vanguardia Painters, 1927-50. “Anytime a painter becomes known at all and people become aware of them, the forgeries come right behind them. I don’t care if you’re talking about Vincent van Gogh or Mario Carreño.’‘
In Florida, Martínez-Cañas had never been sued for selling an allegedly forged painting. Nor does he have a criminal record in the state.
In Puerto Rico, however, a federal jury convicted Martínez-Cañas of fraud in 1977 after he was fired as president of Frito Lay in that country, according to records. He was sentenced to five years for defrauding $1.5 million from Banco Popular in San Juan. He was paroled Feb. 6, 1981, from the minimum-security federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida’s Panhandle, spokeswoman Myra Lowery said Monday.
As Frito Lay’s president, Martinez-Cañas presented the bank with a notarized guarantee of unlimited credit signed by three officers of Pepsico Inc., the parent company. But the corporation knew nothing about the guarantee, and the names of the officers on the letter were fictitious, according to prosecutors.
‘‘It happened—what—30 years ago?’’ said Martínez-Cañas. “I don’t want to get into it. My attorney told me not to comment on anything.’‘
His Miami lawyer, James Weinkle, also declined to comment about his client’s conviction and disputed the fraud allegations in Goldbaum’s suit.
The Ecuadorean insurance executive said he first saw the painting, Woman on Swing, at Elite Fine Art’s gallery at 3140 Ponce de Leon Blvd. in April 1999. The oil painting was purported to have been done by Carreño in 1941.
He expressed a keen interest in buying the painting on one condition—that Martinez-Cañas obtain a certificate of authenticity from Ramon Vázquez Díaz, National Museum of Cuba’s specialist in the Vanguardia period. The movement, from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, showcased the works of Cuban artists who combined the modernism of post-Impressionist Europe with Cuba’s vibrant tropical colors, landscapes and people.
Martínez-Cañas gave Goldbaum the certificate, handwritten in light blue ink on the back of a color photo of the painting. The document, translated from Spanish, says: ‘‘The work that is reproduced in this picture—the data of which are the following, Mario Carreno, oil on canvas, 75 by 60 centimeters—is, in my opinion, an original work.’’ It is signed by Ramon Vázquez Díaz.
The gallery owner called Goldbaum, who flew to Miami and bought the painting for $150,000 on July 30, 1999.
In February, Goldbaum decided to sell the painting. He sent it and the certificate of authenticity to Christie’s.
Christie’s, according to Goldbaum’s suit, spoke directly with the Cuban National Museum’s Vázquez, who said he never authenticated the painting. The painter died in Chile in 1999. The auction house refused to accept the work for sale.
‘‘We declined to sell the painting for reasons of authenticity,’’ a Christie’s spokeswoman said Monday.
Goldbaum’s attorney, Murphy, said Vázquez told her he had never seen Woman on Swing.
‘‘Had [the] painting been an authentic and unquestioned 1941 Mario Carreño work, it would be worth over $200,000,’’ the suit claims.
Latin American art experts agreed.
Staff writer J.A. del Rosario of The San Juan Star contributed to this report.