A self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, an artist known for her raw emotional intensity, sold for $34.9 million at Sotheby’s on Tuesday night, setting an auction benchmark for the most expensive artwork by a Latin American artist.
Completed five years before her death in 1954, the oil painting, “Diego and I,” is one of Kahlo’s final self-portraits and an example of the unsettling intimacy that has attracted collectors to her paintings. The work offers a window into her turbulent marriage with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who is depicted in it just above the artist’s tearful eyes.
In setting a new high for a Latin American artist at auction, Kahlo surpassed a benchmark set by Rivera in 2018, when one of his paintings sold at auction for $9.76 million — or the equivalent of $10.75 million today, accounting for inflation.
A Sotheby’s spokesman identified painting’s buyer as Eduardo F. Costantini, the founder of a museum in Buenos Aires. The work was purchased for his private collection. The spokesman declined to reveal the identity of the seller.
The winning bid for $34.9 million after fees was taken by Anna Di Stasi, Sotheby’s director of Latin American art. A big sale had been assured even before the auction started because Sotheby’s had both a house guarantee and an irrevocable bid from a third party.
[On Wednesday, in an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Costantini that he had placed the irrevocable bid on “Diego and I” and that he planned on exhibiting the painting at the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires, known as MALBA, next year. “I had looked at the painting so many times in books, then all the sudden it came up for auction,” Mr. Costantini said. “I had started dreaming about buying the piece.”]
Adriana Zavala, who curated a 2015 Kahlo exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, said, “This is an important late work from a period where her physical suffering had intensified and her painting became erratic.”
Dr. Zavala added, “She looks less polished and poised.”
Kahlo, who was born in 1907 in Mexico City, began painting in 1926 while recovering from a bus accident that had left her with chronic pain. She developed a rich iconography touching on the realms of life and death, mixing violence and vulnerability in ways that often shocked viewers by pushing gender norms. She died at 47.
“It’s a museum-quality piece,” Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and worldwide head of global fine art sales, said of “Diego and I.” She added that cultural institutions had expressed interest in the artwork but that demand from private collectors had been high. “Frida is now on the wish list of collectors who collect great masterpieces of modern art.”
The last time “Diego and I” was sold at Sotheby’s was 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 substantially since the 1980s, when one of her portraits sold for $85,000. Some art historians attribute the price jump to the increasingly limited availability of her paintings.
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Paving the way. Frida Kahlo is internationally renowned for the emotional intensity of her work. But she is not the only woman from Latin America to leave her mark in the art world. Here are four more to know:
“Frida is becoming one of the most popular artists in the world,” said Gregorio Luke, the former director of the Museum of Latin American Art in California. He explained that Mexican laws prevent most sales of prominent 19th- and 20th-century artists, like Kahlo, from within the country. “So the price is the result of massive pent-up interest in the artist and very little inventory,” he said. “There are probably less than 20 to 30 paintings of hers on the market.”
Some admirers watching the auction regarded Kahlo’s ability to surpass her husband’s record as a sign of the times. Often with married artist couples, it is the woman who is forgotten, explained Jorge Daniel Veneciano, senior curator at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. “In terms of gender politics, this is a good thing,” Mr. Veneciano said. “Now we might say that Diego Rivera is the husband of Frida Kahlo, because she is outshining him.”