There’s a lot of buzz these days at Galería Habana in the city’s Vedado district. It’s been transformed into an informal warehouse and staging area, where the works to be auctioned in the upcoming Subasta Habana are being registered and held. Working at their computers, specialists note last-minute details and finalize the auction catalogue, making numerous phone calls and communicating via the Internet. It’s a team effort led by Luis Miret, auction director; Jorge Toledo, auction specialist; and Clarisa Crive, senior specialist.
All are engaged in preparations for the eleventh edition of Subasta Habana, an event aimed at the commercialization of Cuban fine and decorative arts that first began a decade ago. Both decorative and fine art auctions will be held on at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 1 in the Taganana Room at the National Hotel. The works will also be presented a week earlier at Galería Habana.
Although Subasta Habana originally took place in December, the most recent editions have been scheduled for early November, before the sales of larger, well-known auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York.
This year’s sale holds some surprises for art collectors, among them one lot of three watercolors on paper by Víctor Patricio Landaluze, an acute 19th-century observer of everyday Cuban life…an excellent painting on canvas, Las lavanderas (The Washerwomen) by early 20th-century artist Fernando Tarazona…and a still life by Spanish-Cuban artist José Segura Ezquerro. In comparison to last year’s sale there are fewer lots of contemporary art, but the quality is exceptionally high. Perhaps the most important lots are those of the Cuban Vanguardia period, and abstract and concrete art of the 1950s. There are works by such Vanguardia artists as René Portocarrero, Roberto Diago Querol, Eduardo Abela, Víctor Manuel, Fidelio Ponce, Cundo Bermúdez, and Carlos Enríquez.
We caught up with Clarisa Crive, who offered a sneak preview of the upcoming sale.
Give us a quick overview of this year’s auction.
This year our goal is a very punctual and objective auction, without a large quantity of unsold lots. We want to present attractive and high-quality works that can be acquired after serious screening. We will auction three lots of important works that rarely become available, such as a canvas by José María Mijares. Two interesting and important pieces by René Portocarrero, dating from the 1950s and not previously offered, will be on the block. There will also be two related works: Flora (1967, oil on canvas), and another excellent work depicting a vase of flowers, in a rich range of chromatic textures.
We’ll offer four works by Servando Cabrera Moreno, as well as pieces by Fidelio Ponce de León, and an Ángel Acosta León very similar to the one offered in our first sale. We’ll also have a Cundo Bermúdez, and works by Loló Soldevilla, an artist who, in the last three auctions, has seen an increased presence in terms of the number of pieces and their starting prices.
The presence of contemporary artists will be more exclusive, by invitation. In that sense, we’re offering rarer works that cannot be purchased at the artists’ own studios, and focusing on important artists who already have an organized market for their work. Among the invited contemporary artists are Gustavo Pérez Monzón, Ricardo Brey, Tonel, Roberto Diago Durruthy, Carlos Garaicoa, and Roberto Fabelo.
How does the auction work?
We accept private bidding, telephone bids, in-person bids by collectors, and las silenciosas—bidders represented by the auction director. Those interested in bidding and buying can access the Subasta Habana website from anywhere in the world. They fill in the private bid form and fax it to us. At the time of the auction, a specialized team is responsible for handling these requests.
Subasta Habana has two main activities, along with a virtual gallery. At first, online and physical auctions took place in the same period, but we realized that the online auction was generating a lot of expenses and not many sales.
We decided to change the virtual gallery, which is now open year-round. Users have access to it at any time for buying less important works. At times, if a work is not sold at auction and the owner wants to leave it with us, we’ll put it up for sale online.
What are the criteria in selecting works for the sales?
The criteria depend on the availability of works. Too, we want to present historical works that are not generally available in the art market. We consider how artists have performed in other auctions, but we also make a point of including new artists whose markets we can develop.
In 2009, decorative arts joined the sale. For these works, the selection process—all the logistics and research—is done by the Cuban Cultural Fund in collaboration with Collage Habana gallery. Gretell Rodríguez Álvarez is the curator for this section, and we work together to prepare the catalogue.
In terms of decorative arts, which period has been most in demand?
In Cuba, one can find decorative art from all periods. The Cuban aristocracy took pleasure in acquiring decorative works for their grand houses. But you can also find interesting works from the ancient past. In previous auctions we’ve sold watches, cutlery sets, tiles, and vases of great quality.
What about contemporary artisanal crafts?
We don’t really handle those. It’s only been two years since we started auctioning decorative arts. We would have to do a lot of research to begin offering contemporary craft work. It’s something for the future—for the moment, no.
How do you set price estimates for the works?
The appraisal process is as follows: A work comes into our hands. We have a sales history of past auctions and use that tool—which we consider as important as Artprice (an international art market database)—as it includes all auction sales.
We do an in-depth study and, based on this and other tools, set a provisional price and speak with the seller. If the price the seller has in mind doesn’t correspond to current market demands, we suggest that the piece be sold later. A price cannot be imposed by the owner. There must be a consensus between the Heritage Commission and the rights of the seller.
We do an analysis to authorize the importing of the work, starting from the image and all the data. Based on that, we decide whether it should come to Havana or not. After going through the Heritage Commission, we decide if we want it for the live sale or the virtual gallery.
What percentage is discounted to the sellers?
For the first 30,000, there’s a discount of 20 percent. Between 30,000 and 100, 000, it’s 15 percent, and above 100,000, 10 percent (plus a payment to the National Tax Administration, ONAT).
In the case of deceased artists, do you take the rights of the heirs into account?
Of course. Individuals possessing works of deceased artists participate in the auction. Two years ago we also decided that individuals outside the island with important collections to sell could come to Cuba and participate in the auction. That is one of our goals: to become, from Havana, the core of the international Cuban art market.
Is it possible for forgeries to appear in the auction?
We have a Heritage Commission made up of experts from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA), who see to it that this doesn’t happen. Works must always be certified by the family and by the MNBA experts. Each time we learn more, and draw on many more elements in this process.
Who else authenticates the incoming works?
In recent years, expert assessment in this field has turned a corner. This is reflected in the book recently published by Alex Rosenberg, the renowned art appraiser and contributor to the Ludwig Foundation, in which he talks about the moral right of families to certify works. So there are works authenticated by relatives. Another example: the Cundo Bermúdez work being offered in this sale was approved by the Heritage Commission. We then got in touch with Conrado Basulto, the most authoritative voice on Bermúdez. Together, we reached a consensus and he certified the work
Let’s get a little more background. How did Subasta Habana start?
Subasta Habana was a project of Rafael Acosta, who was then director of the Visual Arts National Council. At the beginning, the Genesis Galleries Company was commissioned to do it. At that time, Genesis was led by Luis Miret, the founder of the Subasta Habana. The organizational home was La Acacia Gallery.
I was not formally part of the auction at first. But I see myself as one of the founders, since I was then a La Acacia specialist and participated in the sales from the beginning. One way or the other I’ve been linked to the auctions, and I remember them all.
What were the goals at first?
The main goal was to create an event that would legitimize the Cuban art market. The auction was intended to promote, market, and position the prices for works by Cuban artists, from 19th-century to contemporary. Cuban art is our specialty, but we also include some Spanish artists who lived and created in Cuba during the colonial period.
Other implicit goals were rediscovering, for the international market, works by Servando Cabrera, Antonia Eiríz, Raúl Martínez, and other artists from the 1960s with no significant international presence due to the isolation of Cuban art. Christie’s, with its Latin American art auctions, had pointed out the potential for this market.
With Eiríz, we have not achieved the expected results. Despite her being an exceptional artist with an incredible body work, we’re not satisfied with the way things have gone over these ten years. However, we’ve achieved very rewarding results with Cabrera. In recent auctions his works have brought prices well above their estimates.
Tell us more about the auction’s history.
The closest antecedents are the Subastas Humanitarias (Humanitarian Auctions), the spring auction sponsored by the Cuban Cultural Fund, and the winter auction at the Imago Gallery in the Grand Theater of Havana. From the first Havana Biennial in 1984, the Cuban art market began to develop, including buyers from the United States, defying the many restrictions of the economic blockade.
Later, Alex Rosenberg began visiting Cuba regularly to give lectures and seminars and organize exhibitions.
How would you describe Subasta Habana’s reputation internationally? Has it attained a certain level of prestige?
The auction is a young event. In these ten years, we have been maturing. We’ve acquired new customers and gained a degree of permanence. We present a modest auction from Cuba with a great deal of dignity. And the event has established a very specific market, in which bidders from the United States and Europe are the major clients.
However, we must continue improving. There is no such thing as a perfect event. I think that step by step, the initial goals of Subasta Habana have been achieved. A clear sign of this is that, from Havana, our principal market is the United States.