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Frida Kahlo’s ‘Diego y yo’ breaks records, sells for $34.9 million

Kahlo's intense 1949 self-portrait is now the most expensive Latin American artwork sold at an auction.

One of the last portraits by Frida Kahlo broke records Tuesday.

Her 1949 self-portrait, titled “Diego y yo,” sold for $34.9 million at Sotheby’s Modern Evening Sale in New York on Tuesday night. It's the highest price ever paid for Latin American art.

The painting was purchased by the Eduardo F. Costantini Collection, Sotheby’s confirmed to The Associated Press shortly after Tuesday’s sale. Constantini, a real estate developer and philanthropist, is a renowned collector committed to supporting Latin American art and the founder of Malba, the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires.

Painted five years before her death, “Diego y yo” is considered to be Kahlo’s final self-portrait. The 11.7- by 8.8-inch oil painting shows a teary-eyed Kahlo with a portrait of her husband, Diego Rivera, embedded above her brow.

“Tonight’s outstanding result further secures her place in the auction echelon she belongs, as one of the true titans of 20th century art," Julian Dawes, Sotheby’s senior vice president and co-head of impressionist and modern art, said in a statement.

“Diego y yo,” an intense painting that speaks to the state of Kahlo’s fragile marriage, was created when she was experiencing a great deal of physical pain, said Natalia Zerbato, an art historian who studies Kahlo’s life and work at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and offers tours based on Kahlo’s life. 

Sotheby’s last auctioned “Diego y yo” in 1990 for $1.4 million. Kahlo’s previous auction record was $8 million for her 1939 painting “Two Nudes in the Forest,” which was auctioned in 2016, according to Sotheby’s.

“I think this is very powerful, too, because it’s not even one of her most famous works,” Zerbato said. “I think if you use just the numbers to talk about how important Frida’s work is, it looks very important and very marketable.”

In Mexico, much of Kahlo’s art is recognized as an artistic monument, a legal status that prevents the sale of prominent 19th and 20th century Mexican art, Zerbato said.

“For Mexico, the meaning of Frida can’t be given a price,” she said. “From my point of view, I can’t put a price on Frida.”

Image: An art handler adjusts Frida Kahlo's final "Bust" Self-Portrait 'Diego y yo" at Sotheby's on Nov. 5, 2021 in New York City.
An art handler adjusts Frida Kahlo's final "Bust" Self-Portrait 'Diego y yo" at Sotheby's on Nov. 5, 2021 in New York City.Angela Weiss / AFP - Getty Images

Kahlo’s ability to speak to so many identities is what makes her art and story so enduring, said Gregorio Luke, a Mexican and Latin American art expert and lecturer.

“I believe that the reason of Frida’s popularity is that she is multicultural. She is multiracial. She embodies this more than any other artist,” said Luke, who is the former director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California. 

Frida Kahlo's father was German and her Mexican mother had Indigenous heritage.

"So she has in her personal heritage this fusion of races,” he said, adding that Kahlo often put the different cultures and influences on display in her painting.

Kahlo was inspired by an array of influences from pre-Hispanic and European works. Luke pointed to her fascination with Eastern cultures and the use of the symbolic third eye in “Diego y yo.”

“She blends all these things together," he said. "She creates something that has a mixture of everybody. So when people look at Frida, they find in that painting something that speaks directly to them.”

A milestone

Tuesday’s auction had been expected to be a milestone for Kahlo. Rivera’s “The Rivals” had held the record for the most valuable Latin American piece of art, having sold at Christie’s for $9.8 million in 2018. Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson weed/White flower no. 1” holds the record for the most valuable artwork by a woman, having sold for more than $44 million in a 2014 Sotheby’s sale, Barron’s reported

In a statement about "Diego y yo" before the auction, Dawes of Sotheby’s said: “When I look at this painting, the phrase 'abre los ojos,' Spanish for 'open your eyes,' immediately comes to mind.”

“I think it also symbolizes the incredible moment this painting will surely usher in for Kahlo, as the market opens its eyes to Kahlo in a new way and secures her place in the auction echelon she belongs,” he said. 

The ever-growing popularity of Kahlo’s artwork is most likely an example of how the art world is thinking more critically about worth and representation in its auctions. 

“To offer it in our Modern Evening Sale in November heralds the recent expansion of the Modern category to include greater representation of underrepresented artists, notably women artists, and rethink how they have historically been valued at auction,” Sotheby’s Chairman Brooke Lampley said in a statement. 

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