Frida Kahlo Portrait Hammers at $31 Million, Shatters Records for Latin American Art

Frida Kahlo, “Diego y yo” (1949), oil on masonite, 11 5/8 by 8 3/4 inches. (courtesy of Sotheby’s)

A roughly 12-by-9-inch painting by Frida Kahlo sold for $31 million hammer just minutes ago in Sotheby’s New York salesroom ($34,883,000 with fees). Titled “Diego y yo” (“Diego and I”) (1949), the well-known work depicts a tearful Kahlo, with the face of her lifelong partner, muralist Diego Rivera, rendered on her forehead in a stirring allegory of their tumultuous romance. It is the last fully-realized “bust” self-portrait Kahlo painted before her death in 1954.

News of the painting made waves earlier this fall when Sotheby’s announced its inclusion in tonight’s Modern Evening Sale with an estimate of $30 to $50 million — a range not uncommon for works by Mark Rothko or Andy Warhol, or even living artists such as Jeff Koons, but seldom attached to works by Latin American women.

The sale of “Diego y yo” shattered Kahlo’s previous auction record, $8 million for “Dos desnudos en el bosque” (“La tierra misma”) (1939), a similarly scaled oil on metal picture placed by Christie’s in 2016. It also knocked Rivera himself out of first place for Latin American art sold in the public market: his 60-inch canvas “The Rivals,” which fetched $9.7 million at Christie’s in 2018, held the top spot until now. (Privately, works by Kahlo have sold “in excess of $30 million,” a Sotheby’s specialist said.)

It’s not the picture’s first time under the hammer: “Diego y yo” was previously offered at Sotheby’s in 1990, acquired by Latin American art dealer Mary-Anne Martin for the comparatively meager sum of $1.4 million. The work changed hands twice before landing with its present owner, a private collector in New York whose name has not been disclosed. Originally, it belonged to Chicago writer and critic Florence Arquin, a friend of Kahlo and Rivera.

James Oles, a senior lecturer at Wellesley College and curator of Latin American art at the Davis Museum who has written extensively on Mexican modernism and Kahlo, says the house’s estimate was “hardly unreasonable” given the scarcity of her works.

“It’s a question of supply and demand, and there are so few self-portraits of high quality by Frida Kahlo in private hands outside of Mexico, that makes them all sort of special,” Oles said in an interview with Hyperallergic prior to the sale. “And this one, although smaller than some of her other paintings, is very intense. For people who are interested in a self-portrait by Kahlo, a lot of it has to do with her extraordinary story.”

Bidding opened at $26 million and closed moments later with a phone bidder via Anna Di Stasi, senior vice president of Sotheby’s Latin American Art department. Barely passing its low estimate, “Diego y yo” did not dethrone Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” (1932), which still holds the record for most expensive work by a woman at $44 million. The painting, a catalogue note says, was backed by an “irrevocable bid,” a guaranteed bid placed by a potential buyer. While the buyer’s identity remains anonymous, Oles believes the price is “out of the realm of any museum.”

An auction house art handler holds up “Diego y yo” before the sale. (courtesy of Sotheby’s)

An image of Rivera on her forehead, whom Kahlo has painted with an all-seeing third eye, rests on her famous eyebrows; locks of hair wrap suggestively around her neck, as though choking her. The picture has “anything you’d want” in a Kahlo painting, Oles says; it was also created right before her practice shifted away from portraiture in the final years of her life.

Arguably Mexico’s most famous visual artist, Kahlo has risen to the ranks of a pop culture icon, racking up not just exhibitions and publications but also a seemingly endless assembly line of branded items and even her own Emoji collection. The zeitgeisty fascination with Kahlo’s ultra-recognizable likeness, stamped on everything from socks to piñatas, is so universally prevalent it has a term: “Fridamania.” Against the backdrop of her commercial ubiquity, the rare few Kahlo originals appear all the more mythic.

“She was not a prolific artist by any means,” Oles told Hyperallergic. “There might be a great Leonora Carrington or [Alfredo] Siqueiros coming up, or the best Diego Rivera, but they’re not so rare as a Frida Kahlo self-portrait coming to auction.” Self-portraits make up about a third of Kahlo’s works, according to Sotheby’s catalogue, and only 11 so-called “bust” examples remain in private hands outside of Mexico, including “Diego y yo.”

Mexico’s strict cultural patrimony laws, which prohibit the sale and export of many modern works of art outside of the country, complicate matters of supply. Paintings by Kahlo, Siqueiros, Remedios Varo, and other 20th-century Mexican masters have been named “historical monuments,” a legal designation overseen by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes that holds a work’s owner to high standards of care.

“Because many of Kahlo’s works are in private collections in Mexico, they won’t leave, they can’t leave, and that creates even more scarcity,” Oles said. “Most of the Kahlos are in two collections in Mexico, the Olmedo Collection and the Gelman Collection.”

The last time a comparably sized painting by the artist sold at auction was last year, also at Sotheby’s. “Congreso de los pueblos por la paz” (1952), with its thick brushwork and landscape theme, is only vaguely representative of the poeticism and painterly prowess that makes Kahlo’s images so irresistible. Still, it fetched a respectable $2.6 million, more than four times its high estimate, perhaps evincing the hunger for any and all works by the Surrealist master.

“There are probably more people on the planet who might want a Van Gogh,” Oles added. “But there are fewer Fridas than Van Goghs.”

Update 11/16/21 8:38pm EDT: Sotheby’s has updated the price, with fees, from $35,883,000 to $34,883,000.

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