Latin American Art: after Diego and Frida?



Twice a year, Christie’s and Sotheby’s hold specialised art sales in New York dedicated exclusively to Latin American artists.
Since the launch of these specialised sales – which attract above all collectors and cultural institutions from that milieu – the key signatures for the success of these events include Frida KAHLO, Diego RIVERA, Wifredo LAM, Roberto MATTA, Sergio DE CAMARGO and Rufino TAMAYO.

In terms of auction records, the most expensive signatures are of course the most legendary, namely those of Diego and Frida, whose best results stand at $2.8 million and $5 million respectively (Baile en Tehuantepec sold in May 1995 at Sotheby’s and Roots sold by the same auctioneer in May 2006).
Frida Kahlo is therefore more expensive than Diego Rivera, logically reflecting the more limited supply of her works and her higher international standing. Only ten paintings by Frida Kahlo have come onto the secondary market in 20 years … A level of scarcity that allowed a 18 cm self-portrait to reach beyond the million-dollar threshold (Self Portrait with Curly Hair 1935 fetched $1.2m on 18 November 2011 at Christie’s). Whereas no works by Frida Kahlo have come onto the market in 2013, no less than 12 by the prolific Diego Rivera have been offered over the last five months. In addition to results between $13,000 and $50,000 for his drawings, one of his best results was generated by a 1957 child portrait in oil that fetched $70,000 on 29 May 2013 ($87,500 including buyer’s premium, Retrato del Niño Don Lorenzo Eduardo Villaseñor, Sotheby’s).

2013 is not 1993
The particularly poor performance of the Latin American sales at the end of May may be largely attributed to the failed attempt by Sotheby’s to sell a large oil-on-canvas by Diego Rivera entitled Madre y Niña, a superbly intimate and melancholic scene which was bought in against a low estimate of $700,000. In fact, the very same work was put up for auction 20 years ago at Christie’s in the same estimate range ($700,000 – $900,000, on 17 May 1993). At the time, the art market had experienced a collapse after a speculative bubble that burst with the stock market crash of 1987. Despite that crisis, 60% of the artist’s works that have fetched more than $700,000 were acquired during the 1990s and not the 2000s, and just one painting has reached beyond this threshold since 2010 (The Old Hamlet, Toledo 1913 sold for $825,000 on 25 May 2011 at Sotheby’s). Between these two periods, the Diego Rivera’s market was not lacking on the supply side. In fact, the number of his paintings progressed by 25% in the 2000s compared to the supply during the 1990s. The recent failure to sell Madre y Niña therefore reflects a certain timidity regarding the major Latin American artists who are still very far behind European and American artists in price terms.

Better than Diego Rivera!
The auction houses have therefore relied on artists other than Diego Rivera to generate their best auctions, namely Joaquín TORRES GARCÍA, Sergio DE CAMARGO, Carlos CRUZ-DIEZ (who set a new record at $700,000 at Sotheby’s on 28 May with Physichromie Ubs Rouge – 1975) and the inevitable Fernando BOTERO, Cándido PORTINARI, Alfredo VOLPI and Alfredo RAMOS MARTINEZ.
The most profitable artists for the auctioneers are Fernando Botero (unsurprisingly) who appears four times in the top 20 of these sales, and Rufino Tamayo (three places in the top 20 of the May 2013 sales).
Nevertheless, Brazilian artists are particularly well ranked compared with others from the region, whether Colombian, Mexican, Venezuelan or Chilean. Sergio De Camargo scored a result of $ 700,000 at Sotheby’s with a 1969 relief (Untitled – Relief No. 263), while Candido Portinari crossed the million-dollar bar and generated Christie’s best result of the sale with Meninos soltando pipas (1941) and Alfredo Volpi generated 3 of the top 10 results of the evening.
Overall, these May 2013 were successful with a total turnover of 30.7 million (incl.buyer’s premium) just from the evening sales ($10 million if we include the proceeds of the Latin America afternoon sales) and the unsold rates were honourable (28% at Sotheby’s and 25%Christie’s). The most active collectors remain unsurprisingly Latin Americans who accounted for 60% of Christie’s Top 10 results and at least 70% of Sotheby’s.