When Fernando Botero had his first solo exhibition, in 1951 at the small Leo Matiz Gallery, in Bogotá, his work was so heterogeneous that visitors initially assumed they were looking at a group show. The young Colombian artist’s watercolors, drawings, and oils depicting local bars and brothels and prominent Colombian figures borrowed as much from painters like Paul Gauguin as they did from Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. There was no indication that this unknown 19-year-old, who turned 80 last month, would become Latin America’s wealthiest and most recognizable artist.
Today the name Botero is inseparable from the corpulent, dark-eyed figures that have become his signature. “You can recognize a Botero anywhere in the world,” says Gary Nader, owner of an eponymous gallery in Miami. Over the past decade, the artist’s distinctive style has attracted new buyers in emerging markets, facilitating a steady rise in prices. Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art at Christie’s, says, “We have found buyers for [his] monumental sculpture all over the globe.” Last November Christie’s sold "Dancers," 2007 — a 10-foot-tall, 3,500-pound bronze sculpture of two fleshy figures facing each other, eyes locked and poised to dance — for $1,762,500 (est. $1.5–2 million) to a European collector, making it the most expensive Botero sculpture to sell at auction. His market will be tested again when Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips de Pury & Company all feature Botero works in their Latin American sales this month.
The son of a traveling salesman, Botero was drawn to art from a very young age. When he was a boy in Medellín, his uncle enrolled him in bullfighting school, but he was far more interested in drawing the bulls than baiting them. He quit the academy after two years and as a teen made a living creating illustrations for the newspaper El Colombiano and working as a set designer. He would revisit the bullring later in his career: A series of 25 bullfight paintings sold out when they premiered at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1985, at prices between $30,000 and $60,000. Today those works sell for $350,000 to $600,000, and one of them, depicting a family of bullfighters, sold at Christie’s in 2010 for $1,706,500 (est. $1–1.5 million). But his early years in Colombia would prove influential in more ways than one. While Botero is usually associated with genial figures, the politics of his home country informed lesser-known series that focus on drugs, corruption, and violence.
In 1952 the 20-year-old artist struck out for Madrid, where he studied painting at the Academia de San Fernando and sold sketches of masterpieces by Goya and Velázquez as a copyist at the Museo del Prado. Traveling around Europe for the next three years, Botero learned fresco techniques in Florence and spent days studying the work of French painters at the Louvre. “If you look at Botero, you can tell he is a student of masters,” says Axel Stein, vice president of business development and a specialist in Latin American art at Sotheby’s New York. “He may give it a new shape and color, but he is a classic painter.”
Indeed, many of his paintings toy with iconic images — like "Déjeuner sur l’herbe," 1969, sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2007 for $1,329,000 — in which Botero swaps Manet’s nude woman and suit clad man for a nude man and clothed woman, both considerably better fed than the originals. And yet, “the art-historical paintings are sometimes not as successful as his family portraits or musicians,” says Henry Allsopp, Phillips de Pury’s senior specialist in Latin American art. The latter have broader appeal and consistently fetch $800,000 to $1.2 million at auction; the record price, $2,032,000, was reached by "The Musicians," 1979, at Christie’s in May 2006 and again the next night at Sotheby’s with "Cuatro músicos," 1984, although Nader says he has conducted private sales of the family paintings for as much as $2.5 million.
Botero moved to New York, the nexus of Abstract Expressionism, in 1960, and his work from this time shows him experimenting with a looser stroke before hitting on his signature rotund forms in the late 1960s. He has said the idea came to him one afternoon while he was drawing a mandolin “like I learned from the Italians.” Sketching a small hole in the middle made the instrument seem huge, monumental: “I saw that something happened there,” he said in an interview at the Berkeley Art Museum, in California, in 2007.
Botero’s first solo show in New York was in 1972 at Marlborough. Some critics dismissed his work as less than serious because it did not attempt to engage with the avant-garde. However, museums acknowledged his significance early on: The Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired "Mona Lisa, Age 12," 1959, an eerie rendition of the legendary portrait, in 1961. (His work is now in 46 museum collections, and he continues to exhibit at galleries around the world, including Tasende, in Los Angeles; Galerie Gmurzynska, in Switzerland; Galería el Museo, in Bogotá; Felipe Grimberg Fine Art, in Miami; and Galerie Thomas in Munich.) Furthermore, Botero’s advocates note, it is not as if the artist is unconcerned with criticality and art history. “His cynical humor really dates back to Goya and Renaissance artists,” says Lucinda Barnes, chief curator at the Berkeley Art Museum, and his plump, tactile figures belie a wry worldview, according to Marlborough president Pierre Levai. “They give a feeling of warmth,” he says of Botero’s family paintings, “but there is the sense that this family, which could be idyllic, is not.”
With a series of commercial successes under his belt, Botero moved to Paris in 1973 and began to expand his repertoire, branching out into three dimensions. Made in marble, bronze, or resin, his sculpture incorporated motifs from his paintings like dancing couples, reclining nudes, and men on horse-back (the latter are the most prized). Today, tabletop sculptures in editions of six typically fetch $200,000 to $400,000, while pieces up to five feet tall sell for $350,000 to $700,000. This month Sotheby’s is offering an eight-foot-tall bronze, "Standing Woman," 2003, which is estimated to earn between $700,000 and $900,000 at its Latin American sale on May 23.
As Botero’s global profile rose, he began to undertake more noncommercial projects. In 2005 he made a series of paintings inspired by the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Shown at Marlborough in 2006, the contorted figures recalled his earlier work targeting the avarice and violence of Colombian political leaders and were praised by critic Roberta Smith for “restor[ing] the prisoners’ dignity and humanity without diminishing their agony.” Botero donated the entire series to the Berkeley Art Museum.
Last May Botero was the subject of a single-artist sale at Sotheby’s. “It was a bit risky,” says Stein, but after being offered a number of especially high-quality pieces from two private collections, he concluded that “the time was right.” Seventy-six percent of the 21 lots sold, underscoring Botero’s continuing appeal, particularly in emerging markets: The top three lots went to Asian buyers, and Stein says the sale brought out the most diverse group of bidders he had ever seen for Botero, with interested parties from Indonesia to Singapore to Hong Kong to Russia.
The sale also highlighted an area where Botero’s market continues to stall: works on paper. The cover lot, "El Presidente," 1975, a satirical pastel portrait of a fictional leader in the style of a court painting, sold for $266,500, below the low estimate of $300,000, while two graphite portraits failed to find a buyer. Strong drawings and watercolors are widely available for $35,000 to $70,000, while larger works on paper go for $150,000. Collectors from South America and tropical regions tend to avoid them, Stein explains, because the paper doesn’t respond well to humidity.
Despite the substantial number of available works, experts say Botero’s market still has room to grow. “The paintings will go quickly over $3 million in the next couple of years, and I think we will see sculptures selling for more than $2.5 million or $3 million,” says Stein. “He is an artist who is collected worldwide,” adds Nader. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
FROM THE FILES
— The May 2011 sale devoted to Botero at Sotheby’s New York made $7,456,125.
— Botero was expelled from his Catholic high school in 1949 for an essay he published in the local newspaper entitled “Picasso and Nonconformity in Art,” which discussed the Cubist painter’s nudes.
— Experts note that Boteros from the 1950s to the late 1960s — mostly still lifes and portraits of women — are currently undervalued. With price points between $40,000 and $200,000, they are “one-third of what they should be,” says Axel Stein, of Sotheby’s.
— To celebrate Botero’s 80th birthday, the Museo de antioquia in Medellín has mounted a show of his latest series, “Via crucis,” inspired by his faith and Renaissance works, on view through August 8.
This article appears in the May issue of Art+Auction.