Rivera Steals the Show at Sotheby's

Rivera Steals the Show at Sotheby's
Latin American art is a steadily growing field, and, in the opinion of one dealer, its increasing popularity could in part be accounted for by crossover collectors from the post-war and contemporary sales, with their skyrocketing prices. Sotheby's generally has stellar material in this department, and such was the case last night. The sales room seemed subdued at moments, but the calm mood was punctuated by bursts of applause when lots did well, and Sotheby's had its highest total for an evening session of Latin American art in five years.

At $10.1 million, last night's sales total already beats the house's total last year for both day and evening sales of $9.8 million, which was itself up 25% from the previous year. The sale also set five artist records, including one for Joaquin Torres-Garcia, and for a sculpture by Matta. Eight of the 49 lots passed, including a Diego Rivera painting Sleep (1936) that carried a $600-800,000 estimate.

The past few rounds of Latin American art auctions, which have been known to attract buyers from the artists' homelands for nationalistic reasons, have been opening up to international collectors, mainly from the U.S. and Europe. Sotheby's specialist Carmen Melian said this was a highly international sale, with much participation from buyers outside Latin America. She pointed out two areas of interest in the sale the large amount of art from Venezuela (what she called a "salute" to the country) and collectors' newfound interest in works from the kinetic movement of the 1960s and '70s.
Top Five Prices
Diego Rivera, La Ofrenda
Price $1.58 million
Estimate $1.5-2 million
Selling to a telephone bidder, right at its low estimate, this painting achieved the highest price paid for a Rivera in a decade. An intimate portrayal of the Day of the Dead festivities, it is a large, important painting that was included in and may have been painted for Rivera's major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1931. (It was only the second solo show the museum had done at that point, the first was Matisse.) Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo whom he married two years before completing this picture and who accompanied him to New York for the opening of the MoMA show may spring more quickly to audiences' minds these days, but many connoisseurs of the field would be quick to name her husband as the better painter, and Rivera shined.
Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Constructivo
Price $940,000
Estimate $600 - 800,000
Torres-Garcia was the star of this sale. All three of his available works far exceeded their high estimates, and made the list of top ten lots. This one, which graced the back of the catalogue, came from the collection of Barbara and John Duncan, American collectors whose time in Peru brought them closer to Latin American art. A generous donor to the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas, Mrs. Duncan was also involved in the organization of Sotheby's first Latin American sale in 1979. Painted in 1935, shortly after he returned to Montevideo after over forty years abroad (many of them in Paris), the painting is typical of his symbol-rich language. It sold to an anonymous telephone buyer after a frenzy of bidding on the phones and in the room, and set a record for the artist at auction.
Rufino Tamayo, Mujer Llamando
Price $884,000
Estimate $800,000  - 1.2 million
This painting, along with the Riveras, was a highly anticipated lot. It was hammered down to an anonymous telephone bidder for a solid, within-estimate price. Tamayo painted this iconic, much-exhibited work in 1941, when he was living in New York. In Mujer Llamando, he blended Pre-Columbian art history with the influence of Picasso's cubism.
Arturo Michelena, La Visite Electorale
Price $576,000
Estimate $500 - 700,000
According to Sotheby's Melian, specialist Axel Stein in Miami had been trying to secure this painting for the house for six years. It is a recently rediscovered work, off the market since the 1920s. Though billed as Venezuela's most famous 19th-century painter, Michelena was not prolific. He painted this genre scene in 1886 and showed it in the Paris Salon of the following year, along with another painting, which won the Salon's second-class gold medal and sold last November at Sotheby's for a whopping $1.352 million, a record for his work. Salon awards still have the power to sway many buyers of this material, according to Melian.
Diego Rivera, Lavanderas con Zopilotes
Price $542,000
Estimate $500 - 700,000
The second Rivera to come up in the sale, this 1928 painting came from the same Dallas private collection as La Ofrenda and the Tamayo painting above. (Also from the same collection were works by Mir and Pissarro included in Sotheby's evening Impressionist Modern sale two weeks ago.) The strongly modeled, abstracted forms of the women's bodies and the work's arresting composition likely added to its appeal, and it sold to a bidder on the phone, just above its low estimate. Riveras can be held up by Mexico's cultural patrimony laws, instated in the 1950s, which demand that paintings by certain artists, although up for sale in New York, cannot leave Mexico. The ones in this sale were exempt.
Latin American art of the post-war period is becoming increasingly popular. The eye-popping 1957 Op Arty work by Alejandro Otero, Coloritmo #23, incited a bidding war on the phones and in the room, and was hammered down to a telephone bidder for $162,000 over double its high estimate to a hearty round of applause after a gentleman in the fifth row bowed out at $130,000. It more than doubled the artist's previous auction record and set the tone for the similar success of Op Physicromie #245 (1966) by Carlos Cruz Diez, which also doubled its high estimate to make $57,000, and also set an artist record. "There is a whole area of collectors coming up, who didn't live through that period, and are now interested in it," Sotheby's Melian said, relating this interest in Latin American optical and kinetic art to the current resurgence of interest in non-Latin American artists working in a comparable style, such as Op artist Victor Vasarely.
"The Torres-Garcia comes from an exceptional collection, from a pioneer of Latin American art, who wrote and organized exhibitions in the '60s and '70s, a grand lady in the field. The $600-800,000 estimate is a lot for Torres-Garcia, but it will make that estimate. It is from the 1930s, which are considered to be his best years."
New York dealer Mary Anne Martin, in a prescient pre-sale comment.
Images courtesy of Sotheby's, New York