Frida Kahlo breaks record for a Latin American artist in Sotheby's $238m Modern art sale

While the auction's star lots included the $34.9m Kahlo and four Monets, the most aggressive bidding was on works by Alexander Calder and Pierre Soulages

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Oliver Barker on the rostrum at last night's Modern art evening sale at Sotheby's in New York

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Oliver Barker on the rostrum at last night's Modern art evening sale at Sotheby's in New York

Courtesy of Sotheby's

One of Frida Kahlo’s final self-portraits, Diego y yo (1949), executed just before the artist’s declining health forced her into the British American Hospital in Mexico City for almost a year, was the undoubted star of Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction last night.

Three tears trickle down Kahlo’s cheeks, her hair hangs loose around her shoulders, while the image of her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, sits in the middle of her forehead.

With surprisingly lacklustre bidding (only five bids) against a steep estimate ($30m-$50m), the portrait—which was guaranteed by a third-party—sold in just over one minute for a low-estimate $31m ($34.9m with fees). But that still sets a big new record price for Kahlo (her previous stood at $8m) and for any Latin American artist. When Diego y yo last appeared at auction 30 years ago at Sotheby’s, it sold for $1.4m—the rise is testament to Kahlo’s appeal and the overall increase in popularity of Latin American art. The painting was bought by Eduardo F. Costantini, the founder of the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires and a well-known supporter of Latin American artists, though it will not be on view any time soon as it was purchased for his private collection.

The UK-based firm Cadell acted as advisers to the vendor of the Kahlo and, following the sale, its co-founding director Richard Bagnall-Smith told The Art Newspaper: "Drama, intensity and quality contributed to Diego y yo quadrupling Frida Kahlo’s action record and setting a new auction record for any Latin American work of art. We were delighted to have overseen the sale and marketing strategy for this rare, museum-quality work."

What seems absurd—and has been picked up by Twitter commentators—is that this Kahlo record is still, apparently, half the price of a jpeg NFT by Beeple.

Frida Kahlo's Diego y yo

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Other lots elicited more vigorous competition, such as the ten-minute flurry of bidding for a 10.6ft by 14ft mobile by Alexander Calder, titled Untitled (1949). With an estimate of $10m-$15m, bidding started at $7.5m but bidders in the room and on the phone pushed it to $16.9m ($19.7m), selling to a buyer on the phone with Sam Vallette, Sotheby’s vice chairman of private sales worldwide——according to the industry newsletter, the Baer Faxt, the underbidder was the art advisor (and former longtime Sotheby's employee) Gabriela Palmieri.

A moody red and black canvas by Pierre Soulages, Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 4 août 1961 (1961) also sparked a scrappy eight-minute bidding war on the New York phones and in the room. The picture hammered at $17.5m ($20.1m with fees), well above its estimate of $8m to $12m. A small, detailed Salvador Dali, L'Àngelus (around 1934), also did well, hammering at $9.1m ($10.7m with fees), doubling its $4m to $6m estimate. The picture is one of a small number of works, most of which are part of museum collections, that illustrate Dali’s obsession with Jean-François Millet’s painting L'Àngelus, depicting two peasants praying over a basket of potatoes in a field.

Pierre Soulages's Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 4 août 1961

Courtesy of Sotheby's

More muted bidding greeted four Monet works, the highlight of which was Coin du bassin aux nymphéas (1918), a lush painting of the artists beloved waterlilies. The picture had not been to auction in 25 years, and while there was interest, it was cautious. Impressionist market has softened in the past few years, but estimates are still punchy. Against an estimate of around $40m, the late waterlillies sold for $44m ($50.8m with fees). The three other Monets sold for at or just above their high estimates.

During the three-way bidding war for Renoir’s Jeune fille à la corbeille de fleurs (around 1890), the auctioneer Oliver Barker leaned down from the rostrum to speak to an older man who was pondering whether he should continue bidding after the price reached $10.6m. “Say seven. Don’t trust the younger generation on the quality of this one, sir. What do they know about this sort of stuff?” Barker said. A moment later, after a bid came in from the phones in New York, Barker leaned over his podium towards the man. “Sir, trust your instincts.” Maybe sir did—he let it go after one more bid and the painting went to a phone buyer in Hong Kong for $11m ($12.9m with fees). It was underbid by the Nahmad family, according to the Baer Faxt.

The sale, the inaugural edition of the newly dubbed Modern Evening Auction, totalled $238m (est. $192.2m-$266.9m). After Monday’s whiz bang Macklowe sale, Sotheby’s sales have so far totalled $959m this week—and with five more auctions to come.

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