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MIAMI (Reuters) - Almost 100 Cuban art works have apparently been stolen from the country's national art museum, and some are turning up in Miami, according to one of the city's leading gallery owners.
Art dealer Ramon Cernuda, a prominent collector of Cuban art who in the past has identified stolen pieces, said he has uncovered 11 paintings in Miami that belong to Havana's National Museum of Fine Arts, believed to be part of a larger trove of purloined pieces.
"The museum has informed me that at this moment they have identified 95 stolen paintings, and they have not finished the inventory," he told Reuters on Friday.
Cernuda said his calls to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana prompted an investigation there three weeks ago, when officials confirmed more works are missing.
Cuban officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Art works in Havana have periodically gone missing, but this would appear to be the largest heist the museum has experienced.
In 1995, the Cintas Foundation, a nonprofit group supporting the arts, sued Sotheby's in Spain, contending that it illegally sold two pieces by Spanish master Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida that the foundation said it owned and were supposedly in the safekeeping of a Havana museum.
Cintas lost the case, but it led to a flood of accusations of other missing museum art works that had been sold on the international market, possibly with the approval of the Cuban government.
Though Cuba has not commented officially, Cernuda said he expected the government would make a formal announcement about the latest thefts.
"They are going to post these for the first time. In the past they have never posted their lost paintings," he said.
"I hope that they ask and seek the cooperation of the FBI's special art theft and fraud unit in Miami," he added, noting that it would provide a good opportunity for the United States and Cuba to cooperate despite 50 years of mutual mistrust.
Cernuda said his suspicions were aroused after he purchased "Carnaval Infantil," by 20th-century Cuban painter Eduardo Abela, for $15,000 earlier this year from a Miami dealer. When he checked its provenance he discovered the painting was listed as the property of the museum in Havana.
Cernuda, a Cuban-American who left the island in the 1960s, said he called the museum to ask if the painting was missing.
"They told me it had been stolen from their warehouse. The thieves cut the painting out of the frame and left it in the rack so no one noticed," he said.
Cernuda contacted the person who sold him the Abela work and learned the dealer had another 10 works, all cut from their frames, by Leopoldo Romanach, a highly regarded early-20th century artist who died in 1951.
"That's when I realized it was serious," he said.
Cernuda called the museum in Havana back and was told at least 12 Romanach works were missing.
Cernuda has since turned over the Abela work to the FBI along with the sale documents.
The FBI said it could confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
Robert Wittman, a former senior investigator with the FBI and founder of the bureau's National Art Crime Team, said the works could only be officially regarded as stolen if the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes officially reports the theft to Interpol.
"There would have to be a claim by the Cuban government, otherwise the owners could simply claim it was sold to them after being decommissioned," he said.
Still, he added, "Stolen is stolen, whether you have diplomatic ties with a country or not, it's still a violation of U.S. law."
The typical recourse for victims of cross-border art theft is to register with one of several international databases devoted to cataloguing such cases. Interpol's Stolen Works of Art Database and the privately managed Art Loss Register of London are the most common forums, as well as the FBI's National Stolen Art File.
In the past, Cuba has not registered works with the databases, leading to accusations that the sale of works missing from state museums was orchestrated by the government, especially during the island's economic crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a top political and financial ally.
Cernuda said he plans to return "Carnaval Infantil" to Havana. "They are really thankful that we informed them at the museum," he said. "They are still not letting me inside the country after 52 years in exile, but they're thankful, so that's a start," he added, laughing.
Editing by Leslie Adler