A self-portrait of Frida Kahlo, an artist known for her raw emotional intensity, sold for $ 34.9 million at Sotheby’s on Tuesday night, setting an auction reference for the Latin American artist’s most expensive artwork.
Completed five years before her death in 1954, the oil painting, “Diego and I,” is one of Kahlo’s final self-portraits and an example of the critical intimacy that attracted collectors to her paintings. The work offers a window into her turbulent marriage with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who is featured in it just above the artist’s tear-filled eyes.
Setting a new high for a Latin American artist at auction, Kahlo surpassed a benchmark set by Rivera in 2018, when one of his paintings sold at auction for $ 9.76 million – or the equivalent of $ 10.75 million today, accounting for inflation.
A representative of Sotheby’s identified the buyer of a painting as Eduardo F. Costantini, the founder of a museum in Buenos Aires. The work was purchased for his private collection. The spokesman refused to reveal the identity of the seller.
The winning bid for $ 34.9 million after fees was taken by Anna Di Stasi, Sotheby’s director of Latin American art. A big sale was secured even before the auction began because Sotheby’s accepted both a guarantee and an irrevocable offer, meaning a third party had already placed an offer it could not withdraw.
Referring to “Diego and I,” Adriana Zavala, who curated Kahlo’s exhibition in 2015 at the New York Botanical Garden, said, “This is a major late work from a period where her physical suffering intensified and her painting became erratic.”
Ms. Zavala added, “She looks less polished and calm.”
Kahlo, who was born in 1907 in Mexico City, began painting in 1926 recovering from a bus accident that left her with chronic pain. She developed a rich iconography touching the spheres of life and death, mixing violence and vulnerability in ways that often shocked viewers by pushing sex norms. She died at the age of 47.
“It’s a museum-quality piece,” Brooke Lampley, president of Sotheby’s and global head of global fine arts sales, said of “Diego and I.” She added that cultural institutions have expressed interest in the art but that demand from private collectors has been high. “Frida is now on the wish list of collectors who collect great masterpieces of modern art.”
The last time “Diego and I” was sold at Sotheby’s was in 1990, when it became the first work by a Latin American artist to sell for more than $ 1 million. The value of Kahlo’s paintings has increased considerably since the 1980s, when one of her portraits sold for $ 85,000. Some art historians attribute the price jump to the increasingly limited availability of her paintings.
“Frida is becoming one of the most popular artists in the world,” said Gregory Luke, the former director of the Museum of Latin American Art in California. He explained that Mexican laws prevent most sales by prominent 19th- and 20th-century artists, such as Kahlo, from within the country. “So the price is the result of massive residual interest in the artist and very little inventory,” he said. “There are probably less than 20 to 30 of her paintings on the market.”
Some admirers watching the auction viewed Kahlo’s ability to surpass her husband’s record as a sign of the times. Often with married artist couples, it is the woman who is forgotten, explained Jorge Daniel Veneciano, a senior curator at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. “In terms of sex politics, this is a good thing,” Mr. Venetian said. “Now we could say that Diego Rivera is Frida Kahlo’s husband because she surpasses him.”