How Castro Stole the Art Hitler Couldn't

Tuesday, December 22, 2015
From The Art Newspaper:

Holocaust survivor’s art last seen in Cuba

US foundation claims Castro regime seized paintings that Hitler failed to steal

A US foundation is stepping up efforts to recover from Cuba a collection of paintings by Picasso, Degas, Goya, Van Gogh and Hans Memling, among others. The missing works, which are potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, are assumed to have been taken from the Havana home of Olga Lengyel (1908-2001), an art collector and Auschwitz survivor, after rebels led by Fidel Castro seized power on the Caribbean island in 1959. None of the paintings has been seen for more than 50 years; their fate is unknown.

The case is one of the largest US property claims against Cuba and could complicate the improving cultural relations between the two countries. The US and Cuba recently began official discussions about property worth around $7bn that has been seized from US companies and citizens since 1959.

“These claims are still totally outstanding,” says Mari-Claudia JimĂ©nez, a lawyer with Herrick, Feinstein, the firm representing Lengyel’s foundation, the Memorial Library in New York. “Normally, certified claims are for immovable property, like a sugar plantation or a house, not for paintings. If one of these pictures is discovered in the United States prior to those claims being settled, we can certainly bring a claim for the recovery of such a work.”

The paintings once hung in the Havana home of Olga Lengyel, the only member of her immediate family to survive Auschwitz. According to witnesses cited in a dossier of documents filed with the US government, the canvases, along with antique furniture and other valuable objects, remained in the apartment when Lengyel left the island after Castro took power.

An extensive pre-Castro inventory of the apartment was compiled by Lengyel and the firm that insured her property. The inventory, seen by The Art Newspaper, includes Dancing Figure and Bending Dancer by Degas, Portrait of the Marchesa by Van Dyck, Three Noblemen by Goya, Angel in Paysage by Memling and Fruits in a Bowl by Picasso.