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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Cuban art market is showing signs of vitality as the economic recession weakens demand for works from elsewhere in Latin America, collectors said.
A Cuban painting was the top seller in May's Latin American art auctions in New York. American collectors of Asian art are now snapping up Cuban contemporary works and Cuban art galleries are also springing up.
For years late Cuban artists of the 20th century, like surrealist Wifredo Lam, have pierced the $1 million mark. A 1943 painting by Mario Carreno fetched nearly $2.2 million at Christie's last month.
Prices have multiplied even faster for living artists, many of them based in Cuba.
"What you could buy for $25,000 four or five years ago could now easily be at least $100,000 and could go up to half a million dollars depending on size, date and rarity," said U.S. collector Howard Farber.
The technical virtuosity of artists is what is attracting buyers, as well as the African influence. Others find novelty in political humor and the use of religion as a vehicle for political comment.
Farber switched to collecting Cuban art after he auctioned his contemporary Chinese art collection for $20 million in 2007. His 58-piece Cuban art show, including "El Sagrado Corazon," traveled in the United States and is due to go to Canada before heading to Europe.
Cuban art bought by Donald Rubin, who has acquired more than 150 pieces from living artists based in Cuba, will also be in touring exhibitions, according to Rachel Weingeist, of The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation.
Farber and Rubin represent opposite poles of art collectors who came to Cuban art in recent years, said Sandra Levinson, executive director of the non-profit Cuban Art Space in New York, which houses over 10,000 contemporary Cuban art works.
Farber, she said, is drawn in part by artists' skill and contemporary themes. Rubin leans toward works that may express spiritual strains. Much Cuban art refers to symbols drawn from a blend of Catholic and African religious practices, according to Cuban Art Space curator Bernardo Navarro.
But Jose Fuster, whose 77-work show is on display at the Cuban Art Space, said his inspiration came from Europe.
"My artistic father is Picasso, my favorite uncle is Gaudi," Fuster said in a documentary showing at the gallery in an exhibit running until July 18.
His paintings include views reminiscent of the Last Supper, but with a Caribbean twist. A smiling crocodile frames a semi-circle around the diners. Fish also smile in seas skimmed by boats framed by the icons of the Havana skyline.