May 28, 2010 / 3:51 PM / 9 years ago

Cuban voodoo-variant art tops Latin American sale

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A painting blending surrealism and Cuban-like voodoo led Sotheby’s Latin American art sale, setting a world auction record for the artist, Cuban Wifredo Lam.

A 1951 untitled work by Chilean surrealist Matta is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Sotheby's/Handout

The Thursday night sale drew $12.2 million, below the $13.8 million minimum pre-sale estimate. It also failed to match Sotheby’s $14.6 million Latin American auction last fall.

Auction officials downplayed the lackluster showing, and they highlighted the genres drawing top dollar bids.

“The big trend that I saw that the surrealist works did very well, the other one was abstract art,” said Sotheby’s Latin American art chief Carmen Melian.

At $1.42 million, Lam’s 1945 “Sur Les Traces (Transformation)” topped the sale. It was 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,” said Melian.

Like Haiti’s voodoo, santeria mixes Roman Catholicism and West African religious traditions. Lam’s grandmother was a santeria priestess, she added.

Horsetails, horns and flames evoke santeria in a dreamlike setting where fluid black strokes trace silhouettes of human extremities like eyes and fingers.

At $722,500, the second-best seller was “The Ordeal of Orwain,” by Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington. The 1959 painting portrays a Druid-like sacrifice of a legendary Welsh noble; a priestess with a cat-like face stirs a caldron.

A 1951 untitled work by Chilean surrealist Matta drew $692,500.

Mexican Diego Rivera’s “Portrait of Gladys March” went to a North American private collector for $662,500. March was a U.S. journalist who spent six months interviewing Rivera and ghost wrote his autobiography.

The sale lot includes her notes and manuscript which Melian called “a scholar’s paradise,” running to hundreds of pages packed in four boxes.

It also has a Rivera letter in which he describes March as a mischievous girl who grew to be a “pretty young woman.” “I discovered what was hidden behind her clothes,” he wrote.

Rivera’s 1953 “Tejedora y los Ninos”, or “Weaver and Children,” valued at up to $1.3 million, failed to sell. For more than half a century, it was only known to scholars via a grainy black and white photograph before resurfacing for sale.

It drew a top bid of $950,000, not enough for the seller.

Mexican cultural laws barred the work being taken abroad. , “That strongly affected the price because it really narrowed down the public (for it) ,” said Melian.

Slideshow (4 Images)

The Sotheby’s sale followed Christie’s 2-day Latin American auction, which sold $20.5 million and set 12 artist auction records. It sale ranked as its best auction in 2 years.

Christie’s top-seller was the palm-sized 1938 painting “Survivor” painted by Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife. It fetched $1.2 million, including Christie’s commission.

Framed as a religious votive offering, it symbolizes her gratitude for surviving a suicide attempt and features a pre-Hispanic idol, according to Christie’s. Kahlo had separated from Rivera after discovering his affair with her sister.

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