Portrait of the Collector as a Young Man

The Bacardi Collection Lives on Through its Scion

By J.P. Faber // Photography by Jon Braeley

February 2019

“It’s very sad that we don’t have more multi-generational collections, that collections simply go back to market,” says Ramón Cernuda, proprietor of Cernuda Arte and a leading expert on Cuban paintings. “It’s not like in the old days, when you would see collections grow from one generation to the next, building to museum quality. The Bacardi’s are one of the few families that will continue this.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the person of Juan Bergaz, the sixth generation of descendants from the founder of the Bacardi spirits empire. A resident of the Gables, where Bacardi USA also maintains its headquarters, Bergaz not only spent the last 11 years working for the company, but for the last three and a half years oversaw the family archives at HQ on Le Juene Road.

“I have always been surrounded by art growing up,” he says. “My grandfather and mother are both big collectors.” Bergaz himself has begun to collect works of famous Cuban painters, many of them passed down from his grandfather in anticipation of future inheritance.

Juan Bergaz in front of “Motociclus” by Carlos Estevez

“My grandfather has a great collection. His concentration is in Cuban art, but he likes Mexican art as well, as do I,” says Bergaz.

That may be so, but in the burgeoning Bergaz collection, Cuban artists dominate. Among them is “La Isla en Peso,” a 1992 work by Cuban diaspora artist José Bedia, which translates roughly as “The Island in Weight.” It alludes to a poem by Cuban author Virgilio Piñera and expresses one of Bedia’s themes – the pain of leaving Cuba.  

“Bedia is my favorite Cuban artist. He paints a lot of things having to do with exiles, which is something I can relate to,” says Bergaz, whose famous family was forced to leave Cuba after initially supporting the Revolution. “Bedia’s paintings show the struggle of his exile.” They also show his fascination with African symbols and images, and other native cultures.

Another of Bergaz’s favorite paintings is one by Tomás Sánchez, the Cuban landscape painter who is one of the most collectable of living Cuban artists today (he is now 70 and lives in Costa Rica). The painting, titled “Vatey Del 75,” depicts a cluster of homes against a green edge of mangroves. “Supposedly one of the houses is his dad’s, which used to have an ice cream shop, so the clouds are supposed to be ice cream,” says Bergaz. Says Cernuda, “Works by Sánchez are very much sought out at an international level and they have reached the $700,000 range at auction. He is very spiritual, and his landscapes are all imaginary…”

As a car and motorcycle enthusiast, another piece that Bergaz enjoys is entitled “Motociclus,” painted in Havana in 1998 by Carlos Estevez, an emerging young master whose works are still in the affordable range of $25,000 to $35,000, says Cernuda. The painting depicts a motorcycle overlain with the image of sprinting ostrich. “I love motor cycles, so it was perfect for me,” says Bergaz.

Bedia is my favorite Cuban artist. He paints a lot of things having to do with exiles, which is something I can relate to…

At Bacardi corporate headquarters, the art work is more geographically diverse. Included in that collection are such paintings as “Nun Eating an Apple” by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, and “Psalterium,” a 1998 work by Chilean artist Claudio Bravo.

But what dominates the collection is a mural by Antonio Gattorno (1904-1980), the indisputable founder of Cuba’s Modernist Movement and the first Cuba artist of his generation to achieve an international reputation. Gattorno originally painted the mural in the 1930s for the Bacardi U.S. headquarters in the Empire State Building in New York City. Entitled “Waiting for Coffee” it shows a country scene in Cuba.

“It’s kind of a funny story,” says Bergaz. “Gattorno actually took a goat into the buildings as a model. He used to get up there in the morning and listen to Trio Matamoros music, and have fights [with other workers] because the music was so loud.” The mural remained in New York until 1961, when it was moved to the Bacardi building in Miami and from there to the Gables headquarters. It’s value today is estimated at $7 million.

At the Bacardi HQ, “Waiting for Coffee” came under the watchful eye of Bergaz, whose job it was not only to expand the collection of art and memorabilia, but to help protect “the soul of the brand, and the soul of the company.”

Bergaz is no longer the curator for Barcardi, having recently left the company to start Bergaz Productions, a movie production company that already has multiple projects in the pipeline. He will nonetheless remain active in the world of art (he is on the board of the Wolfsonian and the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale) and continue to expand his – and his family’s – collection.

“For me, art collecting is a family affair,” he says. “All of us are collectors, and we do everything as a family together.”