Art theft and restitution, interview with Tania Mastrapa

Miami, 22 July 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Tania Mastrapa directs Mastrapa Consultants, which focuses upon the privatisation and confiscation of art works from Cuba. Each December, she organises a conference entitled “The Art of Looting”, which takes a look at some of the most controversial issues surrounding the theft or misappropriation of cultural goods. Art Media Agency met Tania Mastrapa to find out more about her work:

Can you give us some information regarding your background? When did you first start investigating art theft?

My academic background is in international relations and comparative politics. I had two professors in my masters program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy who were Hungarian exiles. They both encouraged and supported my work in the field of post-Communist property restitution. As movable property emptied out from confiscated properties, artworks were a natural subfield in the greater property scheme. My doctoral dissertation dealt with property confiscation in Sandinista Nicaragua and Czechoslovakia and their later restitution schemes ; both as lessons for Cuba. While I was a doctoral student several Cuban exiles approached me to help them research their confiscated property in Cuba. As we looked through their old photos I asked if they knew what had happened to their artworks. Many people believe these items are lost forever, but they eventually turn up in the art market. From there I started digging deep for old news articles, catalogs and museum collections to unravel the trail of theft.

What motivated you to work in the field? Why do you think it is an important field to support?

Every totalitarian regime quashes private property rights in order to enrich themselves and control their populations. Every property and individual is looted. That is, residences and offices are generally emptied out and individuals are searched and stripped of their belongings – no matter the monetary value. The latter is done simply to humiliate the individual. When people flee Communist regimes they are forbidden from taking any of their personal items with them, especially sentimental ones in order to punish them for « betraying the homeland. » After regime officials select items for their own enjoyment, the rest is put up for sale – often in auctions. Foreigners are always available to purchase these items – like vultures. If the property is not returned then the confiscation is legitimised. This is applicable to all theft in any country by any regime.

Could you share a success story with us regarding the recovery of looted works?

I simply conduct the background research to support the claims (I am not an attorney). It is the decision of clients to then pursue legal action if the piece(s) is in the possession of an auction house, museum, etc. There have been successes to varying degrees, but certainly we have not reached a point where every possessor is willing to talk or negotiate a resolution. The prospects will be discussed by the different speakers at the conference.

There is a Cuban exile family (Fanjul) whose attorney managed to have Sotheby’s agree to a set of guidelines when handling any artwork from this family’s collection.

The de la Torre family sued Sotheby’s for the return of their « La Hamaca » by Mariano Rodríguez and ultimately settled.

I have a friend who found her godmother’s portrait at a client’s home. She purchased it from him. Perhaps not an ideal scenario, but she is at least happy that the item is back in the family.

In your opinion, how should museums go about documenting their collections? and how should they document newly-acquired works? What are the difficulties affecting the return of looted works to museums?

There are certain issues that ought to be obvious, but are conveniently ignored. For instance, if an item that was housed in a Polish museum turned up for sale in Germany after the war and there is no record of the museum selling the work, then more than likely this was a looted item. Similarly with Communist regimes – items were never donated to the government, this is a fabrication – thus if the provenance lists an item as « donated » during Communism or if the item magically became available on the international art market after sweeping confiscations and looting then it is obvious that the item should not be handled and ought to be checked against The Art Loss Register, the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, the INTERPOL database and any other database that lists looted and stolen items. Museums must document items while comparing historical events with catalogues and previous sales. I think it is important that their collections be available online because an original owner or heir could more easily locate it in an internet search. Naturally, museums can become defensive because they stand to lose items that were expensive to acquire or had been donated. No museum wants empty spaces in their exhibitions. But if museums focus mostly on authenticity and less on legitimate provenance they can lose their credibility which will affect them in the long-term. Further, the response to claimants is telling – if the initial response is to hire a lawyer and claim that the taking of a painting was a legitimate act by a recognised government (e.g. Soviet Union) this indicates that the museum would prefer to defend their possession of a looted work whereas if the museum negotiates an amicable agreement with the claimant this sends a strong message that the museum will not handle works looted from innocent victims and their heirs. (Note : Soviet Union may have eventually become a recognised government, but that does not diminish that many of the artworks were looted from Russians murdered by the Bolsheviks). There is fear among museums that they will be stripped of their collections if restitution becomes mandatory for items looted by Communist dictatorships and former colonial governments.

Do you work in partnership with the Art Loss Register, or with other organisations who share the same objective (for example ICOM or UNESCO)?

I encourage clients to register their looted collections with The Art Loss Register so that art dealers, galleries, museums and private collectors will hopefully be deterred from handling looted items. Willi Korte of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) promotes collaboration with law enforcement to report your stolen assets so that organisations such as INTERPOL become involved.

What is the current situation in Cuba regarding the looting of collections which took place before the revolution?

I am unclear on this question. There was no systematic looting of collections previous to the Castro regime. Although Cuba did not always have fully democratic governments before the Castro regime, there was widespread respect for property rights.

How is Cuba’s current government responding to the situation? Are they concerned about the restitution of works?

The Cuban regime, like all other Communist dictatorships, publicly focuses their attention on claiming exiles and others will return to kick people out of their houses. The residential sector is one that has always been utilised in defamation schemes.

The regime has not had to publicly comment on the artworks very often. They « loaned » looted artworks to museums abroad which have, unfortunately, cooperated with the Communists and not the owners. After the Soviet Union ended massive subsidies to Cuba the regime turned to the sale of artworks to generate funds for survival. There are pieces in museum exhibits believed to be fakes replacing sold originals. The former Chief of Registry, Inventory and Conservation at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in the 1990s witnessed the removal of items for sale to foreigners. Wifredo Lam’s widow complained that fakes of his artworks were being certified as authentic for sale abroad. The regime denounced these accusations as false. Galleries have also cooperated with the Communists. Sotheby’s and later Christies have become more sensitive to handling artworks looted from Cuba.

Is the notion of restitution in Cuba very politically sensitive?

Communism requires the destruction of all private property. In order for Communist dictatorships to consolidate their totalitarian control they must confiscate property from their citizens and foreigners (governments, investors and residents). The possibility that this property will be returned is a threat to the Communist power structure and as such, Cuba, like all other Communist dictatorships of the past and present, conducts defamation campaigns against original property owners by promoting the notion that original owners are corrupt and greedy. This is done to diminish domestic and international support for restitution. Notably, Communist regime officials, their offspring and comrades aggressively defend their own « rights » to keep the property that was taken from others.

The case of artworks can create sensitivity for the regime for a variety of reasons. Similar to the Stasi in the German Democratic Republic, the looting of artworks, antiques and other valuables from individuals and museums in Cuba and sale to foreigners was (and continues to be) conducted in order to raise hard currency (Western money). Further, the demand for looted artworks spurs a regime-operated counterfeit industry which affects the market. The revelation of these operations is sensitive because it is yet another sideshow demonstrating regime corruption. Typically in Communist regimes provenances were fabricated – for example, collections were listed as donations by families AFTER they had been jailed, executed or exiled. (Romania has a museum that houses entire collections looted from families, but claims that the families donated them to the Communist regime.) Yet, auction houses and other members of the international art market use these fabricated provenances to justify their sales and purchases and claim ignorance or innocence.

Why and how did you come up with the idea to hold a conference about art looting? How many participants are you expecting? Have you been aware of any negative responses to a conference which focuses on this theme?

My work deals with all types of confiscated property and potential claims, but the systematic confiscation and sale of artworks is quite intricate thus I thought it best to dedicate a conference to the topic. Also, it is important to bring attention to the issue because Miami is a prime market for items looted from Cuba. We are expecting 75-100 attendees which are of different backgrounds : original owners of looted assets, attorneys, art history professors and students, museum employees and gallery owners.

This topic has long been controversial, particularly in the case of items looted from Cuba. There are several galleries in Miami that sell artworks looted from private persons who have identified the items. Gallery owners claim these are simply imports from Cuba (which under a strange exception of the US embargo, permits the import of « informational materials » such as books and artworks). Childhood and other family portraits have been identified as well as other paintings from residences. Those who deal with looted art dislike the possibility of losing these sales or being tarnished as dealers of stolen goods. In general, the discussion of returning confiscated property or blocking the sale of these pieces is worrisome for those who benefitted from the regime looting.

How do you see the art market?

I think the art market has made significant strides in dealing with looted works, but there is still a long way to go. Certainly Nazi looted works have gained a special treatment not yet allotted to works looted by other repressive regimes. So long as all looted items are not treated as such, they are likely to continue working their way through the art market. There is clearly a handsome profit to be made. Additionally there are buyers and sellers who willingly disregard moral guidelines so long as there are no legal repercussions that will affect them.