Last week, Miami developer and art collector Jorge Pérez was basking in the accolades of the international art world as his namesake museum, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, opened in time for the Art Basel Miami Beach fair.
This week, Pérez was the subject of news no collector likes to hear: A work credited to the late Cuban painter Carlos Alfonzo that he and his wife donated to Florida International University may be a forgery.
In a statement issued in response to a query from the Miami Herald, a university spokeswoman said the picture, a small oil on paper that displays Alfonzo’s characteristic abstract figures, was removed from an exhibition at FIU’s Frost Art Museum by director Carol Damian after outside experts challenged its authenticity.
The Frost is now investigating the work’s origins, FIU said. “This process will involve substantial study and research, and is one that FIU’s Frost Art Museum is well positioned to undertake as part of its mission as a research institution,’’ university spokeswoman Maydel Santana-Bravo said. “I understand this process could ordinarily take many months to complete.’’
In a statement, Pérez expressed “total shock” at the news, saying he purchased the artwork in 1997 from a reputable source, the former Sloan’s Auction House, which operated in Maryland and Miami before being subsequently sold.
“For over 16 years the piece was hung in my house and viewed by hundreds of people, many of which were well acquainted with the artist. Never was the authenticity of the piece, which is neither a very important or expensive piece of the artist, questioned,” Pérez said. “I have assured the University that, should the piece not be authentic, I would replace (it) for a Cuban work of art of similar value or cash.”
Art experts say even sophisticated collectors like Pérez, who typically rely on certificates of authenticity and advisers when buying artwork, can be victimized by skilled forgers. Art forgery, a persistent problem in the art world, is a crime. Art museums set their own standards for verifying the authenticity of donated works, but smaller institutions often don’t have extensive resources to vet donations, especially those that come from reputable sources with documentations.
In this case, Santana-Bravo said, the Pérez gift was intended as a “study collection’’ to be shared with the university’s Cuban Research Institute and is not yet part of the museum’s permanent collection. The gift was accompanied by a $250,000 donation from the Pérezes to underwrite research into the works, she said.
Terry Riley, former director of the Miami Art Museum and a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said the Frost appears to have handled the issue appropriately. “This is an unfortunate thing,’’ he said. “But sometimes it’s these exhibits that put these pictures that have been in private collections out before the public and start a discussion about it. This might lead to someone getting caught.’’
Alfonzo, who came to Miami during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, earned recognition as a major artist after his death in 1991, at age 40. His work is widely collected and is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney in New York and several Miami institutions, including the newly inaugurated PAMM. The popularity of Alfonzo’s art in the years after his death, which raised resale prices for the work, also made him a target for lucrative forgeries. However, some experts say most of Alfonzo’s output during his decade-long career in exile is well documented, making it easier to identify possible fakes.
Pérez, who earned naming rights to the new PAMM after making a donation of cash and art valued at $40 million, also gave 24 paintings and works on paper by Cuban artists to the Frost and FIU’s Cuban Research Institute earlier this year. The museum drew on the Pérez gifts, valued at $315,000, for two shows this fall. The purported Alfonzo work was hanging in a current show at the Frost, From Africa to the Americas, that was curated by Damian. FIU had valued the untitled work at $20,000 for insurance purposes. While it was up, the work drew some positive critical attention.
A Miami Herald reviewer wrote in November: “Carlos Alfonzo's Untitled is of modest scale but delivers an explosive cornucopia of swirling symbols, rendered in a jewel-like palette.” The Herald also included an image of the work in an online gallery drawn from the exhibit and a companion show of other works from the Pérez gift. But doubts over the artwork’s authenticity came to light in the immediate run-up to Art Basel week.
Several people familiar with the artist’s work questioned the work, including Cesar Trasobares, a well regarded, Miami-based artist who was a close Alfonzo friend and served as art advisor to his estate. Trasobares, a former director of Miami-Dade County’s public-art program, had also authenticated Alfonzo works after the estate was legally dissolved by the artist’s heirs.
The work is dated 1981, a year in which the newly arrived Alfonzo was working odd jobs to survive and “hardly producing any art,’’ Trasobares said. Furthermore, he said, the style of the painting is “incompatible’’ with the few works Alfonzo did produce in those early years. Nor is the work found on lists of the artist’s work, he said.
Trasobares said he brought the questions to Damian’s attention. She had the painting removed from exhibition on Dec. 4, Santana-Bravo said. “She is a professional and acted appropriately,’’ Trasobares said.