December 2009

Following Their Sorollas

A Cuban-American family goes after Madrid’s Prado for showing two paintings confiscated in 1961

By Roger Atwood

The Fanjuls, a family of billionaire sugar growers and real estate developers based in southern Florida who were prominent in pre-Castro Cuba, have threatened legal action against Madrid’s Prado Museum because the institution exhibited two paintings confiscated from the family by Cuba’s Communist government in 1961, after the family fled.

The two paintings, Spanish master Joaquín Sorolla’s Summer (1904) and Clotilde Strolling in the Gardens of La Granja (1907), on loan from Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, were in a Prado exhibition that closed in September. The Fanjul family charges that showing the paintings and selling catalogues in which they are reproduced constitute violations of the Helms-Burton law, which prohibits “trafficking” of property confiscated by the Cuban government and claimed by U.S. citizens.

A lawyer for the Fanjuls, Shanker Singham, wrote to Prado officials in August demanding that the museum take down the paintings and return them to the Fanjuls or to the London-based Art Loss Register, where the works have been listed since 1993. The letter asserted that “merely handling these paintings amounts to illegal trafficking” and could lead to barring Prado officials from entry into the United States.

In an angry reply released later by Singham, the Prado’s director, Miguel Zugaza, said that his museum “could not under any circumstances accept threats like those made in your letter . . . which, as you know, lack any factual or legal basis.” A museum spokesperson said the paintings had been returned to their owner and noted that the exhibition’s catalogue names the Fanjul collection in the paintings’ provenance information, although not as their owner (one references the Fanjuls, the other a family linked to the Fanjuls by marriage). She said the works had been exhibited previously at public museums in Spain without objection from the Fanjuls. Singham responded, “Managing an art collection is not the Fanjuls’ day job. It’s not surprising that they miss an exhibition or two.”

Pepe Fanjul, president of the Fanjuls’ Flo-Sun Holdings, said his family had no objection to museums’ exhibiting the works of art, as long as it was consulted beforehand and its ownership acknowledged. Fanjul said his priority was to prevent the cash-hungry Cuban state from selling the collection piecemeal to raise money.

“The loss would be not just to us but to the Cuban peoples’ heritage if this collection goes to the four winds,” he told ARTnews. At least one painting from the Fanjuls’ confiscated collection has entered the market. When Sorolla’s A View of Málaga turned up at a Sotheby’s London auction in 1997, the Fanjuls took legal action. The sale was stopped, but the whereabouts of the painting are unknown, Singham said.

Experts on Helms-Burton said that the law might not apply to the Prado. Dan Erikson, a Cuba analyst at the Washington, D.C., think tank Inter-American Dialogue and author of The Cuba Wars, said, “The intent of Helms-Burton was to have a chilling effect on investment in Cuba, not chase around objects that have already left the island. In this case, they haven’t been sold, so it’s not clear to me that they would fit the description of trafficking anyway.”

A spokesperson for the State Department said in late October that it had not received a formal request from the Fanjul family to investigate the Prado case and that the museum was not under investigation.

The family is unwavering in its demands for the collection’s eventual return, Fanjul said. “Art stolen by the Nazis was being shown for a long time before people said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not right.'”