May 27, 2010 / 5:56 PM / 9 years ago

Long-unseen Kahlo tops Latin America art auction

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Frida Kahlo portrait of a pre-Hispanic warrior was the top selling work in a sale of Latin American art, which also set five auction records, including one for Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco.

The evening auction at Christie’s on Wednesday fetched $16.8 million, its strongest Latin American sale in two years.

“It was a sale full of excitement and surprises with world auction records for key Latin American modern and contemporary artists,” said Virgilio Garza, Christie’s Latin America art chief.

“We were delighted with the runaway success of Frida Kahlo’s “Survivor,” which fetched $1.1 million against a pre-sale estimate of $100,000-150,000.”

Garza added that the Kahlo work drew bids from as far afield as Europe and Asia.

Orozco’s “The City” also sold for $1.1 million. Both artists’ work is scarce in international markets since Mexico bars their export under cultural heritage laws.

An added novelty was that “Survivor” disappeared from public view for 72 years before it was put up for sale this year.

The bidding excitement for the Kahlo recalled Christie’s May 2008 auction, when the Latin American art market was at its height. At a rapid-fire pace, “Survivor” drew nearly 50 offers, sparking murmurs of amazement among the well-heeled audience.

The palm-sized “Survivor,” which has a standing warrior figure at its center, is a rare Kahlo portrait of a pre-Hispanic idol. It shows an abandoned house on a ridge under a sky which churns with blacks, blues, grays and yellows.

Framed as a religious votive offering, “Survivor” symbolizes Kahlo’s gratitude for surviving a suicide attempt, according to Christie’s. Kahlo had separated from painter husband Diego Rivera after discovering his affair with her sister.

Like Rivera, Orozco was a monumental muralist, who lived in New York during the Depression. “The City” juxtaposes a towering rust-red shell building with portraits of dejected hard-hat workers. They are separated by a suspicious blue-eyed man, portrayed in sharper detail. Typical of the era’s affluent, he wears a top hat.

“Un Trou Sur l’Orange,” by Venezuelan Jesus Rafael Soto, whose sculptures embed optical illusions to render vibrations, sold for $758,500, also an auction record.

The 1970 work is a web of nylon and metal set in low relief against an orange wood panel with an oval void at its center. The sculpture produces vibrations and dancing patters for viewers walking past.

The sale also set world records for Mexican Alfonso Michel, whose oil on masonite, “Naturaleza Muerta” (Still Life), fetched $218,500, nearly quadruple the pre-sale estimate, and Brazilian Beatriz Milhazes, whose 2001 “O Beijo” or The Kiss, sold for a top price for her work on paper at $110,500.

Chilean Alfredo Jaar’s “The More Things Change” also set an auction record for his 1990 work which fetched $60,000. It consists of three double-sided light boxes with color transparencies displaying surf and sky. Each is topped by a mirror in a gilded frame.

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