Highlights of New York sales of Latin American art



The two days of sales on May 28 and 29 offered a total of 464 lots of Modern and Contemporary Latin American artworks. The signatures included Botero, Wifredo Lam, Jesús Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Milhazes and Meireles.

For Sotheby’s, whose first sale dedicated to Latin American art was held in October 1979, the annual LatAm sale is now 35 years old. Christie’s and Phillips followed suit at later dates, so nowadays the three auction market leaders all contribute to the animation and expansion of international demand for Latin American art.
In total, 464 lots were offered on May 28 and 29, 2014 (247 at Christie’s, 114 at Sotheby’s and 103 at Phillips). The sales produced four results above the million-dollar threshold and, this year, Sotheby’s posted the highest sales total with turnover of $18,700,875 (vs. $17,614,500 at Christie’s), although it only hammered one million-plus result (as did Phillips) versus two at Christie’s.

The top signatures
If a significant work by Frida KAHLO had been offered there can be no doubt it would have generated the sales’ highest result. Frida Kahlo is the most sough-after Latin American artist and the rarity of her works galvanizes collectors. She is in fact more expensive at auction than Diego RIVERA since her Roots fetched a record $5m ($ 5.6m including fees) at Sotheby’s New York on May 24, 2006. Rivera’s auction record has stood at $2.8m (for Baile en Tehuantepec) since May 1995 (Sotheby’s). Only ten paintings by Frida Kahlo have been offered at public sales in the past 20 years, so the wealthiest buyers focus on other signatures, driving up the prices of some of Modern art’s key figures, notably Joaquín Torres-García.

Joaquín TORRES GARCÍA was undoubtedly the star of the recent NY sales. Two of his works fetched seven-digit results: Composition TSF at Christie’s ($1.56m incl. fees) and Graphismo Infinito at Sotheby’s ($1.025m). In terms of profitability and auction records, Torres-García has emerged as a leading artist on the Latin American scene. His price index rose 92% over the past decade and his annual turnover doubled over the same period. The most famous Uruguayan Modern artist (born 1874, died 1949), Torres-García was a painter and a sculptor who contributed to the Constructive Universalism movement. He had early contact with the European avant-garde, first in Barcelona with Pablo Picasso when he was 17, and then in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Italy. He subsequently spent two years in New York (1920-1922) before returning to live and work in Montevideo. His 1930s works, revealing the partitioned structures so typical of his Constructive Universalism, are the most sought-after, both as paintings and drawings. However, certain drawings can still be acquired for under $10,000 in Uruguay (at Castells & Castells in Montevideo for example).

The way the market is heading, Joaquín Torres-García could soon be more expensive than Fernando BOTERO, another leading signature of the LatAm art market and one who has been fetching 7-digit results since the 1990s. Despite the longevity of Botero’s high-end market and his global celebrity, his track record shows 14 million-plus results in 22 years whereas Torres-García posts 5 in 8 years. The voluptuous figures painted by the Colombian artist remain a constant pillar of this type of sale: Christie’s had 16 Botero works in its catalog and Sotheby’s has 6. His best result in May was for Man Going to Work (1969, 188 x 188cm) which originated from the Viktor and Marianne Langen Collection and fetched $1.445 including fees – his 11th best-ever auction result. His auction record stands at $2.03m including fees ($1.8m at the hammer), a price that two of his works reached in May 2006: Cuatro músicos (four Musicians) at Sotheby’s and The Musicians at Christie’s.

Another leading – and ascending – signature at the sales was Jesús Rafael SOTO who generated $1.44m from 4 lots at Sotheby’s, including $635,000 for the superb Escritura-Anne (1966). Still very dynamic, Soto’s price index rose 255% over the decade. He is joined by the almost equally dynamic price trend on works by Carlos CRUZ-DIEZ which has posted +219% in 10 years. At the Sotheby’s sale his Fisicromia buried its estimated range ($200,000 – $300,000) when it fetched $509,000 including fees.

While Christie’s and Sotheby’s compete to sell the most profitable works of Latin American Modern art, Phillips focuses its catalog primarily on Contemporary signatures, a riskier area, but occasionally producing some excellent results. The 2005 work Secuencia de tréboles (Clover Sequence) by Gabriel OROZCO fetched $425,000 on May 29 and a work by the Brazilian twins OS GEMEOS sold for $97,500. However, the best result at Phillips was generated by a more “historic” work by Lygia CLARK (Bicho parafuso sem fim (1960) which fetched the auctioneer’s only 7-digit result of the day at $1.685 million including fees).