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Missing Cuban artworks valued at close to $1.5 million

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
updated 8:00 PM EDT, Tue March 11, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • UNESCO lists at least 70 artworks that are believed to have been stolen
  • Dealer who first reported the thefts places artworks' value at close to $1.5 million
  • Ramon Cernuda: Art heists are difficult in Cuba -- museums are tightly guarded
  • Cuban authorities say investigation showed the pieces were crudely cut from frames

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Law enforcement officials in Cuba and the United States are investigating a theft of at least 70 works of art from the island nation with a value totaling more than $1 million, says the Miami art dealer who first reported the heist to U.S. authorities.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) circulated a list of the missing artworks, which art dealer Ramon Cernuda examined and said would likely be valued at close to $1.5 million.

Cernuda first alerted law enforcement officials to the theft in February after buying a painting by a 20th-century Cuban artist for $15,000.

After researching the painting, Cernuda said he discovered the work was registered to Havana's National Museum of Fine Arts. He said he contacted officials there who, upon searching their archives, confirmed the painting and others were missing.

While no major works were stolen, Cernuda said the case was notable because art theft is relatively rare in Cuba. Museums are tightly guarded and artwork is usually inspected before it leaves the country.

"The theft is so much more complicated than the smuggling out of Cuba," Cernuda said. "To just get the art out of the museum is very complicated."

Cuban authorities have not said whether any arrests have been made, but a statement issued by the Cuban National Council of Cultural Heritage said an investigation showed the artworks were removed from their frames while in storage.

Cernuda said the same dealer in Miami who sold him the painting he purchased had another 10 Cuban artworks for sale that appeared to have been crudely cut from their frames.

"It's an obvious tell that something is going on," he said.

Cernuda said he has turned over the painting he purchased to the FBI, and he said the agency is investigating.

Despite chilly relations between the United States and Cuba, Cernuda said he expected any art that is recovered would be returned to the island.

"I am about certain it will go back," he said. "Stolen property is stolen property."

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