Top 5 Most Expensive Works by Latin American Artists at Auction

Liz Catalano
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Frida Kahlo, Diego y yo (Diego and I), 1949. Image from Sotheby’s.
Frida Kahlo, Diego y yo (Diego and I), 1949. Image from Sotheby’s.

Frida Kahlo’s Diego y yo (Diego and I) painting from 1949 is poised to break multiple records this fall. Sotheby’s recently announced that the piece is starring in the Modern Evening Sale in November. It is expected to bring in at least USD 30 million, though the auction house has not defined a specific estimate. Diego and I last came to auction in 1990, when it sold for $1.4 million and set what was then the auction record for Kahlo. The 1990 auction marked the first time that a work by a Latin American artist crossed the million-dollar threshold at auction. 

Now, this painting will challenge three public records in the industry. Its sale will almost certainly break Kahlo’s previous individual auction record, set in 2016. The estimate for Diego and I also approaches the current record for a painting by a woman artist, presently held by Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1. O’Keeffe’s work famously reached $44.4 million at Sotheby’s in 2014. Additionally, Kahlo’s Diego and I will likely reach new heights for Latin American artists. 

As the art world readies itself for the sale of Frida Kahlo’s intimate self-portrait, we examine the top five most expensive works by Latin American artists sold at auction.

Frida Kahlo, Autorretrato con aeroplano (Self-Portrait With Airplane), 1929. Image from Sotheby’s.
Frida Kahlo, Autorretrato con aeroplano (Self-Portrait With Airplane), 1929. Image from Sotheby’s.

#5: Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait With Airplane

A 2000 auction at Sotheby’s shattered records with the sale of Frida Kahlo’s Autorretrato con aeroplano (Self-Portrait With Airplane). The piece surpassed its high estimate and sold for $5,065,750. At the time, this was the most expensive work ever created by a woman artist. The sale also set an important precedent for Latin American art at auction, which was still an emerging global category at the time.

Kahlo finished Self-Portrait With Airplane shortly after her first marriage to Diego Rivera at the age of 22. She started to explore her artistic style for the first time. Traditional elements of Mexican folklore emerged in these early Kahlo paintings. In this work, the young artist placed herself in a peasant blouse and a pre-Columbian necklace. Self-Portrait With Airplane reflects the youth and innocence of the newly-married Kahlo. She eventually abandoned these themes to better capture the physical and emotional pain she experienced throughout her life.

Frida Kahlo, Raíces (Roots), 1943. Image from Sotheby’s.
Frida Kahlo, Raíces (Roots), 1943. Image from Sotheby’s.

#4: Frida Kahlo’s Roots

Frida Kahlo raised the world’s highest price for a Latin American artist at auction in 2006. Her Raíces (Roots) painting from 1943 achieved $5,616,000 with Sotheby’s in New York. Despite toppling the record, Roots sold near its low estimate.

In Roots, Kahlo placed herself in a rocky landscape inspired by a piece of land she shared with Diego Rivera. Kahlo, clothed in an orange dress, stares idly at the viewer as green vines pour from her torso. It is among Kahlo’s more peaceful self-portraits. She completed it shortly after reuniting with Rivera in their second marriage. Though she added threatening cracks in the ground, Kahlo seemingly approached this self-portrait with acceptance and distance.

Rufino Tamayo, Trovador (The Troubadour), 1945. Image from Christie’s.
Rufino Tamayo, Trovador (The Troubadour), 1945. Image from Christie’s.

#3: Rufino Tamayo’s The Troubadour

Trovador (The Troubadour) by Rufino Tamayo surpassed Frida Kahlo’s auction record in 2008. The painting reached $7,209,000 at Christie’s and more than doubled Tamayo’s previous auction record. It held the industry record for a Latin American artist for the next eight years.

Rufino Tamayo completed The Troubadour in 1945. At the time, the Mexican artist was at the pinnacle of his critical acclaim. Tamayo constantly distanced himself from his more politically-minded contemporaries, including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. He instead tried to bridge Mexican iconography with the broader humanist movement taking hold in the West. The Troubadour reflects Tamayo’s interest in the “everyman” and the alienation that can grow between such a person and the rest of society.

Frida Kahlo, Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma) [Two Nudes in a Forest], 1939. Image from Christie’s.
Frida Kahlo, Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma) [Two Nudes in a Forest], 1939. Image from Christie’s.

#2: Frida Kahlo’s Two Nudes in a Forest

Frida Kahlo holds the second-highest auction record for a Latin American artist. Her 1939 painting titled Dos desnudos en el bosque (Two Nudes in a Forest) sold for $8,005,000 with Christie’s in 2016. It also surpassed Kahlo’s previous personal record. However, the piece barely reached its low estimate of $8,000,000 despite widespread anticipation.

Two Nudes in a Forest depicts a pair of women tenderly reclining before a crowd of leafy plants. It possibly refers to Kahlo’s perception of herself as many individuals, which resulted from her mixed ancestry and history of chronic pain. It may also reference Kahlo’s bisexuality and intimate relationships with women. Both Kahlo and Diego Rivera engaged in affairs that severely strained their marriage, which had almost collapsed when Kahlo completed Two Nudes in a Forest. Additionally, Kahlo’s health worsened in 1939. Her tumultuous personal life yielded masterful depictions of emotional pain using Kahlo’s Surrealist visual language.

Diego Rivera, The Rivals, 1931. Image from Christie’s.
Diego Rivera, The Rivals, 1931. Image from Christie’s.

#1: Diego Rivera’s The Rivals

In 2018, Diego Rivera overtook Frida Kahlo in the auction market. His painting, titled The Rivals, reached $9,762,500 with Christie’s. It became the most expensive work by a Latin American artist ever to sell in a public auction. Rivera still holds that title today. American socialite and Rockefeller matriarch Abby Aldrich Rockefeller commissioned the piece for her private art collection. The painting shows a group of figures gathering for Las Velas, a traditional Oaxaca celebration that takes place in May. 

Beyond the auction world, prices for both Rivera and Kahlo paintings may have exceeded this record high. Phillips facilitated a private sale of Rivera’s Baile en Tehuantepec (Dance in Tehuantepec) in 2016. The piece changed hands for approximately $15.7 million. Earlier in 2021, Artnet News reported that a Kahlo self-portrait may have sold for $130 million in a Sotheby’s private auction. The ambiguous estimate for Diego and I in the upcoming Sotheby’s event reflects these private prices, as well as the market’s endless desire for more Frida Kahlo.

Searching for other auction histories? Check out our analysis of record-breaking video game auctions.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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