Wifredo Lam, Les Fiancés, 1944
Courtesy Cernuda Arte

Minutes after the opening of this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach fair, Cernuda Arte gallery sold Wifredo Lam’s 1944 painting Les Fiancés for $3 million, setting a new record for work by the artist. Cuban Art News spoke with Ramón Cernuda about the sale, Art Basel, and Cuban art.

Congratulations on the sale of the Wifredo Lam painting. You must be thrilled. 

We’re very happy for that, yes.

What can you tell us about the purchaser?

He is a Cuban-American collector who wishes to remain anonymous—a person who owns an illustrious collection of Cuban art, and who is a very well-known figure in the Cuban American community. He is a person who has in the past been supportive of museums, and he has committed to lend the painting for museum exhibitions in the future.

This is quite a moment for Lam. Just last month we reported on a new record for a painting of his sold at auction, and now comes this sale, at a considerably higher figure. Why is this happening now? Why Lam?

Wifredo Lam shared really extrordinary years of creativity—intellectual and artistic creativity—in the first part of the 20th century with the most important figures of the intelligensia of Europe and the United States, and Latin Am in the 1940s. This is a man who exhibited twice in two-person exhibitions with Pablo Picasso. He was the only artist to be awarded that level of recognition by Picasso. He was a personal friend of André Breton, Peggy Guggenheim, Pierre Matisse, Dora Maar, Asger Jorn, Max Ernst, and so many others—you know, Roberto Matta, Alejo Carpentier, Alfred Barr. He was there with Ernest Hemingway, Remedios Varo, Gorky, Motherwell, de Kooning. It’s just that art historians have not really caught on to the importance of Wifredo Lam in the international context of the art movements of the 20th century.

And now that is beginning to become better known. In art market terminology, Wifredo Lam has been a sleeper. And people are waking up to his importance.

Do you think this has to do with a greater interest in Cuban and Latin American art in general? Or is it really just focused on Lam?

Having participated in the fair for one day, I can say that we are seeing enormous interest in Cuban art and the Vanguardia artists. We have sold not only two works by Lam but also works by Amelia Peláez, Mariano Rodríguez, René Portocarrero, Eduardo Abela, and Cundo Bermúdez. We’ve already sold eight works in total, and one Carlos Enríquez that sold just prior to the fair through the Art Basel website.

In the case of Wifredo Lam, what is happening is an international phenomenon that has a lot to do with modernism and not so much with the expansion of interest around Cuban art. But in the case of the Cuban masters, we are seeing an enormous growing interest in Cuban art and these masters of the Vanguardiamovement. So they are parallel phenomena.

I say this because the 1972 exquisitely surreal work that was sold by Sotheby’s just three weeks ago is really a very European work. It has the distinct identity of Lam, but it is a distilled surrealist work of great quality. The painting that we’ve just sold is a 1944 work, and even though you can see the cubism that to a certain extent is borrowed from Picasso, it is a very Afro-Caribbean work. So you have a situation where Lam is really expanding to a different level of recognition. We know for a fact that at FIAC in Paris a few months ago, a major Lam sold for 1.5 million euros. So we see Lam moving at an international level.

This is Cernuda Arte’s first year at Art Basel Miami Beach. Do you think this is part of the same trend of greater interest in art from Cuba and Latin America?

Yes, I do think so. The decision to accept our proposal at Art Basel Miami Beach responds in a way to that growing interest on the part of the international collector to better know the important work that was made in Cuba and also in other Latin American countries. From the visits we are receiving here at the fair, we do see important international modern art collections becoming interested—very much interested—in the masters of Latin American modernism of the first part of the 20th century.

How do you think prices like these will affect the market for Cuban art?

These record prices bring more interest and attract more important and affluent collectors. Today’s Miami Herald has a very important quote from Norman Braman, one of the top collectors of international art, modern and contemporary, here in Florida, stating precisely that—that Wifredo Lam had been ignored for so long that now the market is awakening to him. And it’s not only Lam. It’s Lam and other top Latin American artists and Cuban artists.

How would you describe the traffic at your booth? What types of collectors have been stopping by? Which pieces have drawn the most interest? 

We’re getting an international crowd here. North American, Canada, Europe, and a sprinkle of Russian with some Asian visitors also. It’s interesting to note that the Cuban-American contingent is really a minority at our booth. We love to have them here, but it’s nice to see that it’s really an international crowd.

In terms of which pieces have drawn the most interest, Lam is really the key and the focus. Because of the importance of Les Fiancés, we’ve had enormous interest in other Lam works we’re exhibiting. We’re exhibiting a total of six Lam works—we’ve sold two and still have four. But it’s nice to see that interest is spread evenly among artists like Mariano Rodríguez. We sold an exquisite abstract work from the 1950s [Bird, 1959] that is going to a very important collection in the New York area. You know, the 1950s Mariano. We’ve also sold a 1950s Portocarrero [Woman, 1957], a major work that is also going to a New York collection, a different one. A Cundo Bermúdez from the 1940s [Harlequin with Umbrella, c. 1946-47] is going to the northeastern United States. So there’s a lot of interest and it’s spread around the various works that we brought.

In general terms, how have sales been so far?

They’ve totally exceeded our expectations. We’re coming out of a market that until recently was depressed, and people were very cautious about their acquisitions. Here in Miami, we noticed that collectors and buyers drove very, very, very tough bargains. So we were not expecting the level of sales that we’ve achieved so far. It’s really way beyond our best expectations.