Cryptic letter taunts museum curator looking for missing masterpiece

A painting by famed 18th century Mexican artist Miguel Cabrera – long believed lost to history - may have been hanging in obscurity on the wall of a Los Angeles home for the last 60 years.

The artwork, nicknamed “Española,” is the only missing piece from the 16 Cabrera did in a series of casta, or caste, paintings. The painting's location remained a mystery for decades, until two years ago, when Ilona Katzew, the curator of Latin American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, received a cryptic letter written in the voice of the little girl featured in the artwork.

“You should know that I am well and living less than two (2) miles from LACMA,” Española wrote in the letter to Katzew, the Los Angeles Times reported. “I have been in the same family for I believe 60 years, although I do not know how I was acquired.”

Since opening the letter, Katzew has puzzled over where in that two mile radius “Española” is hiding, but clues to the painting’s whereabouts are few and far between.

The three-paragraph letter gave no more indication of the painting’s location or means of contacting the owner. The mailing label was trimmed down to remove any information about its origin. The postage was a pair of 37-cent stamps – retired a decade before the letter was sent – and a commemorative stamp honoring writer Jack London that was issued in 1988.

letter

 (LACMA)

Five photos of the painting – the only ones known to exist of the work - were also included with the letter, but the only information that Katzew was able to glean from them was that the artwork was in a modern frame and that it was apparently hanging high on a wall.

In the letter, however, Española hints that she would be willing go on display “for a limited period of time” if the conditions were right.

“If you ever gather a reunion of all my siblings, I would welcome the opportunity to be on display for a limited period of time,” the letter noted. “I am not lost, I just do not wish to be found.”

The 16 paintings in Cabrera’s casta series – an art style that explored interracial marriages and children in the Spain’s New World colonies – were purportedly sent to Spain from Mexico shortly after the artist’s death and displayed in the home of the Viceroy of New Spain, Joaquin de Montserrat.

In 2015, 14 of the painting were housed in museums across the U.S., Spain and Mexico. The most recently discovered one – a painting of a Spanish father, his half-Spanish, half-African wife, and their albino baby – was found under a couch in a northern California home and quickly obtained by LACMA.

“My owner has enjoyed seeing #6,” Española’s letter said in reference to the most recently acquired painting, “and I am pleased that we are all now accounted for despite the diaspora.”

But it’s been two years since the most recent Cabrera was acquired – and since Española’s letter – and Katzew hasn’t had any other contact with the painting’s owner. But she’s hoping that with LACMA opening a show on 18th-century artwork next month, Española’s owner might reach out again.