NEW YORK (Reuters) - A long-unseen Frida Kahlo painting of a pre-Hispanic idol goes on sale next month at Christie's when it will reappear in public for the first time in 72 years, the auction house said.
"Survivor," which sold in 1938 at a New York gallery, has since remained out of sight, its image unpublished, before submission this year for auction at Christie's Latin American art sale on May 26.
"Just when you think everything has been said and done on Kahlo, you come upon this treasure, which really has never changed hands, staying with the same family," said Christie's Latin American art chief Virgilio Garza.
"Survivor" is one of the few Kahlo paintings to focus on a pre-Columbian idol, he said. It shows a standing warrior figure, mottled brown, with a white headdress. The idol stands on a field with an abandoned house on a ridge, set against a sky churning with blacks, blues, grays and yellows.
Art historian Salomon Grimberg says the warrior symbolizes Kahlo's resilience for surviving a tumultuous personal life.
At the time, Kahlo was separated from Diego Rivera, another top Mexican painter and waiting for a divorce, according to Christie's. She had discovered his affair with her sister.
A palm-sized painting, "Survivor" is set in ornate tin frame typical of religious votive paintings in Oaxaca, a southern state which is predominantly Indian.
"Survivor is an ex-voto, done to express her gratitude for the miracle that had been granted that had allowed her to survive the volatility of her personal existence," Grimberg wrote in an essay in the art auction catalog.
In recent years, Frida Kahlo has grown to be a prominent woman artist, with retrospectives at London's Tate Gallery, Minneapolis' Walker Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A major Kahlo show opens on April 30 at Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau museum.
Her paintings infrequently come to market since many Kahlo works are in Mexico and by law, can't be exported, Garza said. The last Kahlos sold at auction were two drawings in 2007.
He said the highest ever prize paid for Kahlo was $5.6 million in May 2006.
Christie's estimates the price for "Survivor" is between $100,000 and $150,000.
"We are delighted to add to the scholarship of the artist by locating a long lost work," said Garza, who said he learned of it when its owner contacted him to sell it in January.
"Survivor" was acquired in 1938 by Walter Pach, an influential critic famed in art history as a key organizer of New York's 1913 Armory Show, considered a watershed by introducing Americans to the work of many avant-garde artists.
"Pach was a close friend of the Riveras," Garza said. "Pach's family offered us 'Survivor' as well as a group of Rivera sketches which we're also selling at the auction."
Editing by Patricia Reaney