Art Basel is a world-famous annual contemporary art show in Hong Kong, Basel and Miami.
A Cuban and an Englishman walk into an art fair… This is not the beginning of a joke but perhaps the start of a long investigation into this year’s Miami-based art scandal, a heist that left many gallery owners feeling uneasy.
An $85,000 silver plate designed by Pablo Picasso was stolen at the satellite Art Miami fair during this year’s Art Basel week. The work, titled Visage aux Mains (Face and Hands), is one of 20 plates the Spanish master created in 1956. It went missing from the Amsterdam-based Leslie Smith Gallery booth on Thursday or Friday between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 10 a.m.
The exhibition booth where the plate was hanging
“This has never happened before at this show,” David Smith, the gallery owner, told Fusion.
Smith, who seemed more irritated than worried, said the piece was insured and that now it was up to the authorities to do their job. However, police told the Miami Herald “there is no video surveillance or witnesses to this incident.” Art Miami security does not have any leads either. The satellite fair’s director, Nick Korniloff, is offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who returns the work in an effort to prevent the snatcher(s) from melting the plate and trying to sell the silver.
Smith told Fusion he also submitted the case to the Art Loss Register, a private international database of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectables founded by British risk consultant turned art detective Julian Radcliffe.
Fusion met with this English gentleman, who collects inexpensive watercolor paintings, and his young Watson, Will Korner, at the Art Basel fair to gain further insight into the Picasso mystery and other cases.
The stolen Picasso at the Art Loss Register database
Radcliffe, fresh off of a transatlantic plane but looking energetic and sporting a full suit, said that if the police do not find the perpetrator in the next few days the case will turn cold. “Then it’s up to us, and we could be working for the next two decades, but we will search forever,” he said.
Resembling a friendly Alan Rickman, Radcliffe clarified search expectations: “Say, for example, you have 100 items stolen 20 years ago… 20 percent will be immediately damaged or destroyed.” He said the rest will remain hidden (by the thieves themselves or their friends), sold to private or black markets, or suddenly appear once convicted Mafiosos negotiate a reduced sentence by helping authorities find ‘missing’ works.
Radcliffe (left) and his colleague Will Korner at their Art Basel booth
Absolute patience and persistence are requirements to succeed in this line of work, Radcliffe said. “In some cases a piece may be passed on through several generations without people knowing,” he explained. The detectives usually find it when someone tries to sell.
Korner, his good-mannered and blushing apprentice adds, “recovery rate is low.” They currently have 1,473 Picassos registered as missing in their database.
“He’s the most stolen because he was the most prolific at producing,” Radcliffe said about Picasso. “There is hope, but you got to be prepared to search for 20 or 30 years maybe.”
In signature British humor, Radcliffe points and says “art like this is more difficult to steal.”
It is this willingness to wait that has allowed Radcliffe to help crack major cases across several continents.
On Christmas Eve in 1997, more than a 100 religious colonial artifacts were stolen from the San Andres de Machaca temple in La Paz, Bolivia. The theft was reported to Interpol and the Register. Thirteen years later an American art dealer contacted the Register and alleged he had “received [two of] the paintings on consignment from an elderly American collector.” Radcliffe told Fusion the art historians he employs “were able to conclusively identify the portraits of Saint Rose of Viterbo and Saint Agustin.”
After more than a decade the Art Loss Register and Interpol returned the paintings to Bolivia
Radcliffe and Korner also work alongside specialists dedicated to WWII research. The Register is often tracking Nazi stolen art and major European works that the Soviets ransacked and then took to Russia after the war.
They also specialize in finding art that has gone missing in current war zones. “We are looking at cases in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria,” Radcliffe said.
In spite of the glamorous art findings some critics have denounced the Register's tactics as pushing "ethical, and sometimes legal, boundaries." These allegedly range from suing clients who don't pay the recovery fee, paying "middlemen and informers," and behaving like a "bounty hunter."
Now, the British detective wants to look into paintings that were stolen during the Cuban revolution. “Many rich people fled the island and took works belonging to the state with them,” he said.
Plenty of Cuban art has been found in Florida, and this takes us to our second detective segment: Ramon Cernuda, a wealthy Cuban collector who has helped resolve local stolen art and forgery cases and whose exhibition booth was just a few steps away from the Picasso crime scene.
A blueprint of the Art Miami satellite fair
Cernuda has not been consulted by the police or the gallery, but he met with Radcliffe over drinks and dinner on Sunday. He says he admires the Register’s work but specializes more in falsification, claiming it’s a big problem because there are increasingly “frustrated artists that feel mistreated by the market and collectors, and thus they turn to forgery.”
Cernuda greets potential clients
In his native Spanish, he said his gallery Cernuda Arte often acts as a consultant for banks, auction houses, insurance companies, collectors, and museums that want to verify the authenticity of the works they are acquiring. “We don’t charge them a dime,” Cernuda said, explaining that for him this is a fight “between good and evil.” He admits he also does it for the reputation.
Last February, he helped crack a major case by identifying a series of paintings that had been stolen from the Bellas Artes Museum in Havana and surfaced at a Miami gallery. “Ten paintings had been clearly cut out of their frames and this made me suspicious.”
But not everyone sees Cernuda as a hero. His critics often brand him as a tattletale and bigmouth. The Cuban gentleman alleges he has spent about $1 million dollars defending himself against lawsuits accusing him of defamation. “But I’ve never lost one,” he emphasized.
He offers some last words of advice to those interested in purchasing high-priced art. “To identify a forgery you have to ask yourself the following: has the work been published? Categorized in books? Have you consulted it with specialists? Do your research before you buy.”
It remains to be seen if Radcliffe asks for Cernuda’s help in the search for the missing Picasso plate. So far, the British detective said the suspect list is quite broad.
Korner and Radcliffe cruise through the main fair held at the Miami Beach Convention Center
He believes we can leave other collectors and fraud out of this equation. “There is a lack of security at these fairs, it could have easily been a drug addict who needs a fix or people who specialize in competence and distraction.”
There’s no rocket science or elaborate Hollywood schemes behind the vast majority of stolen art cases. For Radcliffe it can be as easy and simple as “a beautiful woman distracts the gallery owner and a man puts the piece under his coat.”
So far the person(s) behind the Art Miami robbery have done a good job at not leaving a trail. Perhaps if Picasso were alive he would acknowledge the feat in his own phrase, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
"The Art Detectives" via Gabriella Peñuela
Photographs by Ana Camus