Frida Kahlo’s ‘Diego and I’ Self Portrait Sells for $34.9 Million

A self-portrait of artist Frida Kahlo, famous for its emotional intensity, sold for $34.9 million at Sotheby’s Tuesday night, setting the auction standard for the most expensive work of art by a Latin American artist.

Completed five years before her death in 1954, the oil painting “Diego and Me” is one of Kahlo’s final self-portraits and an example of the unsettling intimacy that captivated collectors of her paintings. The work offers a window into her turbulent marriage with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, in which she is depicted above the artist’s tearful eyes.

Setting a new high for a Latin American artist at auction, Kahlo exceeded the benchmark set by Rivera in 2018, when one of his paintings sold at auction for $9.76 million — or $10.75 million today, accounting for inflation.

A Sotheby’s spokesperson said the painting’s buyer was Eduardo F. Costantini, founder of a museum in Buenos Aires. The work was purchased for his own collection. The spokesman refused to reveal the identity of the seller.

The winning bid was $34.9 million after Anna de Stasi, Sotheby’s Director of Arts in Latin America, received a fee. A big sale was confirmed even before the auction even started because Sotheby’s accepted both a guarantee and a non-cancellable bid, meaning a third party had already made a bid that they couldn’t withdraw.

Referring to “Diego and I,” Adriana Zavala, who organized Kahlo’s 2015 exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, said, “This is an important late work from a period when her physical suffering intensified and her drawings became irregular.”

“She looks less polished and straight,” Ms. Zavala added.

Born in 1907 in Mexico City, Kahlo began painting in 1926 while she was recovering from a bus accident that left her in chronic pain. She has developed a rich iconography that touches the realms of life and death, blending violence and vulnerability in ways that often shocked viewers by pushing gender norms. She died at the age of 47.

“It’s a museum-quality piece,” said Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and global director of global fine art sales. She added that cultural institutions have shown interest in the artwork, but this demand was high from collectors. “Frida is now on the collector’s wish list of great masterpieces of modern art.”

“Diego and Me” was last sold at Sotheby’s 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 dramatically since the 1980s, when one of her portraits sold for $85,000. Some art historians attribute the high prices to the increasingly limited availability of her paintings.

“Frida has become one of the most famous artists in the world,” said Gregorio Luc, former director of the Museum of Latin American Art in California. He explained that Mexican laws prevent most sales of prominent artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Kahlo, from within the country. “So the price is the result of pent-up interest in the artist and a lack of inventory,” he said. “There are probably less than 20 to 30 of her plates on the market.”

Some fans who watched the auction considered Kahlo’s ability to break her husband’s record as a sign of the times. Jorge Daniel Veneziano, senior curator at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, explained that women are often forgotten with married couples. “In terms of gender policy, that’s a good thing,” said Mr. Veneziano. “Now we can say that Diego Rivera is Frida Kahlo’s husband, because she is superior to him.”

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