Frida Kahlo, Latin America’s most expensive artist


Last November Frida Kahlo became Latin America’s dearest artist thanks to a small canvas measuring 30 x 22 centimeters titled Diego y yo. We take a look at the auction history of one of the most cherished artists in art history, starting with the market history of that painting.

Announced by Sotheby’s as “one of the star lots” at Sotheby’s Modern Art Sales Evening in New York in November 2021, Diego y yo (Diego and Me) had already been sold at Sotheby’s back in 1990 for $1.4 million. At the time, Frida Kahlo became the first Latin American artist to sell for over a million dollars at auction. Thirty years later, Sotheby’s raised the price of this canvas to 31 million dollars, a substantial revision illustrating the extraordinary passion that the iconic Frida KAHLO can arouse.

Diego y yo is emblematic of the intense and enigmatic self-portraits painted by the Mexican painter who died in 1954 at the age of 47. In this painting, completed in 1949, the face of her lover and mentor Diego Rivera (to whom she was twice married) appears on Frida’s forehead above her black eyes, from which a few tears escape. Rivera, who at the time became close to Mexican actress Maria Felix, is shown here with a third eye, a sign of the torment he is causing his wife Frida.

Diego y yo therefore constitutes a magnetic self-portrait around Frida’s relationship with Diego. Frida also makes the name of her dear Diego appear on the canvas before hers and alludes to herself as a simple “I”. Diego’s face on her forehead seems to dominate her face, just like his name dominates her reference to herself. This kind of work corresponds exactly to what major collectors and museums love: a subject with a strong autobiographical dimension, mixing passion and torment.

Leïla Jarbouai, curator of an exhibition on Frida Kahlo at the Musée de l’Orangerie in 2013-2014, explains that Frida’s fraught relationship with Diego Rivera “acquired an almost mythical status in 20th century art history and that Diego’s presence in the work increases the value of the work, especially since he is rarely depicted in her other paintings.“This minimalist self-portrait is poignant and illustrates – according to Leïla Jarbouai – all the themes worked by the artist.”

It is therefore easier to understand how this canvas measuring 30 x 22 cm soared to nearly $35 million (including fees) on 16 November last, resulting in an extraordinary revaluation of the Mexican artist whose previous auction record was $8 million for Dos desnudos in el bosque (La tierra misma) hammered at Christie’s in 2016. So… between 2016 and 2021, Frida Kahlo’s auction record added $27 million.

Frida worth more than Diego… soon more than Van Gogh?

After the sale of Diego y yo, Julian Dawes, Sotheby’s senior vice president and co-head of Impressionist & Modern Art in New York said “Tonight’s outstanding result further secures her place in the auction echelon she belongs, as one of the true titans of 20th century art.”. Moreover, her status as a major figure is now further consolidated by the painting becoming the most expensive work by a Latin American artist ever sold in auction, well ahead of a her husband, Diego Rivera.

Previously, Frida Kahlo’s work was valued significantly below her spouse’s, both during her lifetime and after her death. But the sale of this self-portrait has reversed the situation. Now a work by Frida has substantially dwarfed Diego’s auction record, and by an impressive margin: Diego RIVERA’s auction prices have never reached beyond $10 million, while the $34.8 million (incl. fees) obtained for Diego y yo illustrates the art market’s passion for what Frida embodied in her work and her life.

We could compare Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits to those of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). Both reflect psychological suffering and anguish related to health issues. Both have developed an absolutely unique pictorial style. Both are absolute icons of the 20th century… It therefore might not be long before a painting by Frida Kahlo reaches the prices obtained for works by Vincent VAN GOGH, whose record for a self-portrait stands at $65 million, with an absolute auction record of $82.5 million (Portrait of Doctor Gachet (Christie’s, 1990). The main obstacle to seeing Kahlo reach as high as Van Gogh is the rarity of her works. Due to poor health, the artist did not create a large number of works. Moreover, most of the collections comprising his works are in Mexico and few circulate on the art market. Indeed, the emblematic Diego y yo has now joined the Eduardo F. Costantini Collection, an the Argentinian entrepreneur/collector and founder of the Museum of Latin American Arts (Malba) in Buenos Aires. Apart from private collections, only one painting is visible to the public in a European museum: The Frame, kept at the Pompidou Center in Paris.