Cuban Booty: The Art of Looting

Excerpts from an article appearing in the summer edition of the German art journal KUR by our good friend Tania Mastrapa, Ph.D. For those interested in Cuba’s looted art, Dr. Mastrapa will be holding a conference in Miami on July 20th addressing the thefts in Cuba as well as the USSR, Nazi Germany, and other communist countries:


1959 was the year that changed the lives of Cubans forever. Fidel Castro and his revolution successfully toppled the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship and promised a return to democracy with the restoration of the 1940 constitution and free elections. Cubans and the rest of the world are still waiting. After public denials of support for Communism, Castro later confirmed his inclinations and the ultimate goal of the revolution – a Communist state. Yet, already in 1959 the signs were visibly present as the regime first authorized the confiscation of alleged Batistiano property. The regime soon confiscated real property and its contents from other Cubans, foreigners, churches, private schools, class enemies, political prisoners, and refugees. All Communist regimes, starting with that of Soviet Russia, raised hard currency (read: Western money) by covertly and overtly selling the loot to foreigners. Communist Cuba has not strayed from the pattern set by its predecessors.

The revolutionary regime in Cuba immediately set out to punish all those allegedly and genuinely linked to the fallen dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The creation of the Ministerio de la Recuperación de Bienes Malversados or Ministry for the Recovery of Misappropriated Assets (sometimes translated as Ministry for the Recovery Stolen Property) was authorized to confiscate any and all property of so-called Batista collaborators. The regime was rather fast and loose with this categorization to say the least. The first Ministry auction in 1960 “1a Subasta de Joyas y Antigüedades” offered for sale chandeliers, fur coats, jewelry, paintings, stamp collections and china sets among other personal assets. Although some items were clearly slated for transfer to Cuban cultural institutes it is unlikely that all were sold. The descriptions of some listings seem to match those of items sold at auction at later dates. For instance, another auction in Havana offered for sale pre-Revolution jewelry, silverware, and precious metal purses among other items that may have been part of the early loot.

1940-1950 sterling silver coffee pot, tea pot, sugar bowl and bell by Poole and tray by Gorham looted from Cuba.

There are a variety of undocumented cases of looted property based on exile anecdotes. Certainly some of the most painful tales recount the stripping of sentimental possessions such as signed baseballs, wedding rings, and engraved heirloom watches by airport authorities before departing the island forever. Shortly after the 1959 revolution, one family found the entire contents of their dining room in a Mexico City antiques store. Some have seen their jewelry worn by regime children at Communist “society” events in newspaper pictures. Family portraits have been spotted at antiques shows and, most egregiously, in the homes of other exiles.

Set of 21 rings and 2 pins from 1940-1950 looted from Cubans and made available for sale at a Havana auction.

On July 20, 2013 a one-day conference titled “The Art of Looting” featuring Christopher A. Marinello of The Art Loss Register, Willi Korte of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) and others will cover Soviet, Nazi and Communist looting of artworks, antiques, jewelry and other valuables. Speakers will also discuss the sales and trafficking of these items from Cuba and the prospects for recovering them. For details visit:



7 thoughts on “Cuban Booty: The Art of Looting

  1. Yes, stripping women of their wedding rings at the airport in Havana just before going into exile DID happen, and I know that for a fact. It didn’t need to be an especially valuable ring, either, meaning it wasn’t done purely or solely for monetary gain. It was also done to hurt and humiliate the “worms” that chose to leave the Castro paradise. But then again, in a system headed by bastards (literally and figuratively), being a bastard was the order of the day. It still is.

  2. asombra,

    The Castro brothers were known as a pair of thieves and thugs since their university days (my Dad knew someone who rented a room to them in those days), they have not chanced since they took over the island in 1959…

  3. From what I’ve heard over the years, there is enough looted Cuban art, jewelry, and antiquities to hold a whole series of conferences.

  4. I understand that much of the art was sold off through famous auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies, and off course, CANADA, benefitted mightly from the confiscation of Cuban heirlooms and other valuables. The Canadians made out like thieves as they purchased valuable furniture, and other belongings. But that’s not all, even national patrimony belonging to the Biblioteca Nacional such as Federico Garcia Lorca’s manuscripts were sold off as were paintings by Sorolla that belonged to the Museo de Bellas Arts. A friend of mine was in Mexico City one day and he saw an angel that belonged to his family’s mauseleum in el Cementerio de Colon. It had been cut off the pedastal and they were selling it at an antique’s shop!

  5. We don’t even need to talk about stolen art or other luxury items. EVERYBODY who left Cuba for exile was robbed, because it was COMPULSORY, in order to be allowed to leave, to turn over all possessions (house, furniture, appliances, car, everything–let alone luxury items) to the state. In other words, all personal property was confiscated as a matter of course and you could NOT sell it or leave it to people of your choosing. The looting, therefore, was systematic and comprehensive, not just a matter of some rich people losing jewelry, silverware or works of art.

  6. Yes, they stole everything from anyone who has left the island. They stripped me down to my calzoncillos when I left, to make sure I wasn’t taking any sentimental or valuable stuff. They literally killed my father because of his art collection. In 1976, he was trying to set up a museum, so he could leave. But a truck pulled up to the house and he was told that all of the stuff in his (our) house had to go to a warehouse. He died on the spot. Heart attack. Bastards….. Even worse, I know of a Cuban who came to visit Yale and met with the librarian in charge of Spanish language books. This Cuban told the librarian that he could get him all sorts of books from Cuba. Especially rare, expensive books. This Cuban worked for the Ministry of Culture. Unfortunately, this great injustice will never be corrected. NEVER. But this is small change compared to the other injustices committed by these criminals, including all the murders, imprisonments, and torture..

  7. One could only leave Cuba for exile if one accepted official extortion: “You want to leave? OK, we keep ALL your stuff, and you only take with you a limited amount of strictly personal items like clothing and some shoes. Absolutely NOTHING deemed valuable, regardless of any sentimental attachment, is going with you, and you may NOT dispose of it before leaving in ANY way, because it belongs to the “revolution.” If we find you’ve tried to cheat the revolution, we can simply cancel your exit permit on the spot, and we can always make the cancellation permanent. Got that? Good. Have a nice day, and enjoy your trip.”

    The lowlife scumbag who headed the “committee for the defense of revolution” (CDR) on our block, upon learning we’d gotten permission to leave, went around boasting the CDR knew exactly what was in our house, and that if any of it was missing when the government came to take inventory (yes, they came to your house and took inventory), we’d never get to leave. My poor mother was terrified, because my father had disposed of some items (which were his property, after all). Fortunately, my father had some sensitive dirt on the POS, and discreetly communicated his intention to divulge it if we got screwed out of leaving. It worked, but they still took all our stuff. And no, we weren’t rich high-class types, just ordinary, respectable small-town people.

    And Carlos Eire is right: there will NEVER be restitution, certainly not for the vast majority of what was extorted from people desperate to get the hell out of totalitarian hell.

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