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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A work blending surrealism and the Cuban variant of voodoo tops this week's Latin American art auctions, which also feature long-unseen paintings by Mexican artist Diego Rivera and wife Frida Kahlo.
The Christie's sale Wednesday and Thursday and Sotheby's Thursday and Friday auctions each have high estimates of $25.2 million, sums reminiscent of strong demand in 2008.
"People are starting to enjoy their money again, not keeping it," said Sotheby's Latin American art chief Carmen Melian. (Some) buy cars, boats and houses ... others invest in art."
With a high estimate of $1.8 million, Sotheby's top-priced item is Cuban Wifredo Lam's 1945 "Sur Les Traces Transformation," painted after his return home from Paris, where he belonged to the surrealist group led by Andre Breton.
"This work combines European elements of surrealism and of santeria," she said.
Like Haiti's voodoo, santeria mixes Roman Catholicism and West African religious traditions. Lam's grandmother was a santeria priestess, she added.
Rivera's 1953 "Tejedora y los Ninos," or "Weaver and Children," is valued at up to $1.3 million said Sotheby's. For more than half a century, it was only known to scholars via a grainy black and white photograph before resurfacing for sale.
At Christie's, a rare Kahlo painting of a pre-Hispanic idol reappears in public for the first time in 72 years, with a high estimate of $150,000.
Framed as a votive offering, the work, "Survivor," symbolizes Kahlo's gratitude for surviving her first separation from Rivera after discovering his affair with her sister, according to the auction house. She awaited divorce and had attempted suicide.
Rivera's painting of Gladys March, a U.S. journalist who spent six months interviewing him, is also part of the sale .
Her interview notes and a manuscript of her ghost-written autobiography of Rivera, which Melian called "a scholar's paradise," are being sold for up to $275,000 in conjunction with the portrait.
The set also comes with a Rivera letter in which he writes he first knew March as a mischievous girl and then as a "pretty young woman."
"I discovered what was hidden behind her clothes," he wrote.
At Christie's, the three top-priced works each have a high estimate of $1.2 million. They include Colombian Fernando Botero's 2002 sculpture "Woman on a Horse," and Brazilian painter Emiliano di Calvacanti's 1955 Sonhos do Carnival," or "Carnival Sounds."
The third equally priced work is Uruguayan Joaquin Torres' Garcia's 1931 painting "Composicion constructiva en planos y figuras," or "Constructivist Composition of planes and figures."
Christie's Latin American art chief, Virgilio Garza, said his hopes for a strong sale this week were buoyed by record prices of modern art in recent auctions.
"We're coming on the heels of amazing sales," he said. "It's been very exciting to see record sales in Impressionist and contemporary art."
Earlier this month, Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" sold for more than $106 million at Christie's, setting a record for art sold at auction.
Jasper Johns' pop art painting "Flag" from a collection that belonged to best-selling author Michael Crichton sold for a record for the artist at $28.64 million in May at Christie's.
Editing by Patricia Reaney