Sotheby's May Have to Return Stolen Cuban Painting

1945 13 May 2004

NEW YORK.- Alfonso A. Castillo of NY Newsday reported that a Cuban exile’s 43-year journey to piece together his estranged art collection took him into a Mineola courtroom yesterday, where he faced off with a Manhattan auction house in a custody battle over one of his most beloved paintings. With the aid of a walker, Manuel De La Torre, 86, entered State Supreme Court yesterday, alongside his wife and son, to ask Judge Joseph Covello to force Sotheby’s to turn over a painting he says was stolen from him. Sotheby’s says it got the painting legally.

"It’s very hard," De La Torre, of Hicksville, said in Spanish. "It’s something you love, that you know was stolen and you know it’s here, and they won’t give it to you."

De La Torre, a longtime art collector, fled his native Cuba more than four decades ago amid the rise of Fidel Castro’s government, which De La Torre said labeled him a "counter revolutionist." He left behind all his belongings, including his cherished 48-piece art collection, with the hope that he would someday return, but he never did.

"I lost everything," De La Torre said. "But of all that I lost, what hurt me the most is my art collection."

Three years ago, he found the painting in a Sotheby’s ad. He went to the show, with "La Hamaca," depicting a woman on a hammock. He has not seen the painting since. De La Torre believes the painting was confiscated by "communist goons," and later a Spanish diplomat came into possession of it. De La Torre sued last year to have the painting returned. The judge is scheduled to return a decision at a May 4 court date.

Sotheby’s officials say they legally took possession of the painting after Michael Navascues, heir to the Spanish diplomat, presented legal title and consigned it to them in 1997.

"Essentially, Sotheby’s shouldn’t be fencing stolen property," said De La Torre’s Mineola attorney Grant Lally.

Sotheby’s asserts the law is on its side and that even if the painting was confiscated by the Castro government, international doctrine prohibits courts from deciding cases that interfere with foreign government policies. Sotheby’s has offered to let De La Torre keep the painting until his death, at which time it would be returned for auction. But De La Torre maintains he will settle for nothing less than having the painting returned to him, for future generations to cherish. "It’s our heritage," Manny De La Torre said. "It’s our family heritage."
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