The Latin American Market Comes of Age

Some thoughts on the past twenty-one years.

—Mary-Anne Martin, 1988

Twenty-one years ago the Latin American art market didn’t exist. Not to say that works by artists from Latin America weren’t being sold in various places, but they were not marketed as a collecting category. Much has occurred since I organized the first Mexican sale in 1977. It began as an experiment, a way to make my life at Sotheby’s more interesting and to attract the attention and approval of my superiors, who were focused on Impressionist and Contemporary paintings, the big money makers. My early experience with this field was completely accidental. I had been trained at Sotheby’s as an expert in Modern European pictures and none of my graduate school courses ever touched on the Mexicans or the artists of Latin America. There were no survey books to be had because Latin Americans viewed themselves country by country, not as a group. Sometimes I hear people criticizing the label “Latin American” as an outsider’s term, but I chose it to describe the auctions over “South American,” a term which excluded Mexico and Central America. Others have criticized the idea of separate auctions, since “art is art.” That is true, but there is no doubt in my mind that the huge interest in this field would not exist today if the auctions had not shed light on the art of this vast region with a common, though not homogenous, heritage.

The first international auction of “Latin American Art” was held at Sotheby’s in October 1979 as a benefit sale for the Center for Inter American Relations (now called the Americas Society). A collaboration between the two institutions, the sale combined a diverse group of paintings that the Center had gathered from donors and contemporary artists in many Latin American countries with a selection of “heavy hitters” provided by Sotheby’s (some Diego Riveras, a big Matta, an important Wifredo Lam, etc.). In spite of many difficulties, such as estimating works by artists that had never before appeared at auction, the sale was a professional effort and a distinct success. I remember the excited announcement of the auctioneer, after he dropped the gavel on the final lot: “Ladies and gentlemen, the total for tonight’s sale has exceeded one million dollars!” Today there are Latin American artists whose works can sell for a million dollars each, but at the time a million-dollar sale was a big event at Sotheby’s, even for Impressionist or Contemporary art.

In 1979 few collectors were interested in Latin American Art. Very little information was available in English. The library I formed for myself consisted largely of out-of-print volumes that I had located in book barns. Like an instructor who is one chapter ahead of her students in the book, I had to teach myself. The audience at those first auctions tended to sit together in little groups according to nationality. In the greatest numbers were the Mexicans, who bought about 40 percent of the offerings. Another group was the Venezuelans, more “pan Latin” in that they were interested in art from a variety of countries. For example, a Venezuelan might buy a Mexican painting like a Rivera or a Tamayo, but a Mexican would not buy a Reverón. The remaining Latin Americans bought art from their own country only and failed to see any parallels with the art of close neighbors. The Americans who did collect tended to favor Mexican art, with which they were familiar from years of shared history. Diego Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, for example, had all painted murals in the US. Many American artists went down to Mexico during the Depression era to learn mural technique from the Mexican masters, returning to paint murals in Federal buildings under the WPA project.

It was only after six or eight years of auction sales and a few landmark museum exhibitions (Art of the Fantastic , Art in Latin America, Hispanic Art in the United States , The Latin American Spirit ) that Latin American and American collectors as well, began to draw up “shopping lists” of important Latin American masters, like Rivera, Tamayo, Kahlo, Matta, Lam, Botero, Torres-García, Portinari, Figari and Xul Solar, which they had seen in these ground breaking exhibitions. Last of all came the museum curators, who with few exceptions had ignored the mounting interest in this new area. It was only with the increasing demographic importance of a growing Hispanic public in cities around the country that museums perceived the need to catch up with the demands of a new public and to acquire art that they had previously ignored, neglected, or, in some cases, rejected. Gradually the condescending tendency of scholars and critics to assume that the unfamiliar must be derivative began to dissipate. While European artists like Picasso, Klee, Mondrian and Monet unquestionably influenced the early masters of Latin America, it is also true that Matta worked concurrently with Gorky, that Gottlieb was influenced by Torres-García and that Jackson Pollock was taught by Siqueiros. Few critics realized that a neo-expressionist movement occurred in Argentina in the 60’s (Noe, De la Vega, Macció, Deira) before one emerged in the US and Europe in the 80’s, or acknowledged that “op” and geometric art had leading exemplars in South America (Soto, Le Parc, Cruz Diez, Negret, Otero) before this trend surfaced in Europe and the US. Just as undercutting was the practice of dubbing Latin American artists “international” whenever they achieved real fame or recognition (Fontana, Marisol, Matta, Leonor Fini, Botero). In some cases the artists themselves played into this, from some misguided notion that to be international was more important than to acknowledge one’s roots.

In order to illustrate the amazing rise of interest in Latin American Art, it is useful to track the market for a few very important examples: Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo and Wifredo Lam. Each artist was somewhat known at the time of the first Latin American sales, but none was a household word. Over the following 21 years, their prices rose – and sometimes fell – in a pattern that enables us to make observations about the development of the Latin American market as a whole.

The transformation of the artist, Frida Kahlo, from an obscure footnote in Mexican art history, to a cult object, whose works fetch more dollars per square inch than the work of any other Latin American painter, was a phenomenon I observed first hand. It started with a traveling Kahlo exhibition that arrived at NYU’s Grey Gallery at about the same time as the publication of Hayden Herrera’s Frida, a Biography (1983). Hungry for more information about this fascinating woman, people devoured the book and sought out a little documentary film on her life, which was circulating in esoteric art cinemas. Interest mounted and reporters started to write about this wonderful woman, who seemed to fulfill the needs of many groups in search of a role model. She was an independent woman at the time that the women’s movement was strongly underway; she was handicapped yet a survivor; she wanted to conceive a child yet knew the emptiness of being barren; she was strong, she was tragic; she painted unforgettable images of her intense physical and emotional pain; she had lesbian affairs yet her consuming passion was for Diego Rivera, the great love in her life. Herrera’s book was translated into German and Spanish and reissued in paperback. Frida’s popularity escalated as young women, starved for heroines in the eighties, began to learn about her life. Adolescent girls voted Frida one of the most influential women in history in a Sassy magazine poll and college girls tacked up reproductions of her poignant self-portraits in their dorm rooms. Then word got out that Madonna, the rock singer, was collecting her work and planning to star in a movie about her life. Frida passed into pop history.

The auction story follows the same course. The first Frida Kahlo ever to appear at auction was a small work from 1946, The Tree of Hope Stands Firm, included in the first Mexican sale at Sotheby’s, in April 1977. My estimate was $20-30,000 and the minimum price was set at $20,000. The bidding did not go that high and the auctioneer decided to let it go at $19,000, take a reduced commission and pay the consignor as if the work had reached the minimum. Had the auctioneer not made this decision on the podium, the painting (which today is worth more than a million dollars) would not have been sold at all! Two years later another, larger, Kahlo came up, Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1940, selling for $44,000. That same painting was later selected for the cover of Herrera’s biography of Frida and was sold privately to Madonna in the late 80’s for a million dollars. In spite of rumors that she was gobbling up every Kahlo in sight, Madonna actually bought quite well, and retired from the market when it began to spike steeply. In 1989 a 9 x 12 inch oil on metal by Kahlo, Two Nudes in a Jungle, 1939 went for $506,000, over triple its pre-sale estimate of $120,000-160,000. I was the buyer (I had left Sotheby’s in 1982 to start a gallery devoted to Latin American art) and Madonna was the underbidder. Six months later another small Kahlo, Diego and I, 1949 came up, and I determined to have it. Earlier I had tried unsuccessfully to buy it from the owner, an American widower in Chicago whose wife had been a friend of Frida’s. The estimate was audacious: $800,000-$1,000,000 for a painting that measured 11 x 8 inches. I came to the sale believing that the most it could cost would be $1,000,000. In the end I had to pay $1,430,000. In those few tense minutes market history was made. This was the first Latin American painting ever to sell for $1,000,000 and the audience was euphoric. For many it signaled that Latin American art was on the map. A psychological barrier had been broken, and ten minutes later Matta’s, The Disasters of Mysticism, also passed $1million. The following year Diego and I was illustrated in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which included Kahlo for the first time. Ten years earlier that would have been unimaginable. Frida had come a long way since 1979, when Olga Tamayo (the artist’s wife), after requesting my estimate for Self-Portrait with Monkey, wrote to me “Oh no, Rufino would never pay $40,000 for a Frida Kahlo!” In discussing the demand for works by Kahlo and the extremely high prices they fetch, it is important to remember that they are very rare. Few paintings can come on the open market as Kahlo’s works have been classified by the Mexican Government as “National Patrimony.” This declaration came in 1984, rather late considering that she died in 1954. For thirty years she had been regarded by Mexican collectors as Diego Rivera’s wife, who painted. She was considered a local artist, an amateur, not a cultural treasure. Of the two hundred or so works that she painted during her short and tortured life, about 50 are in public or private collections that cannot leave Mexico. Twenty more are scattered in US or foreign museums. Few of her early works are interesting, as she was self-taught and went through an awkward period; her late works are frequently choppy and crudely painted, as she was in tremendous pain and impaired by alcohol and painkillers. The pool of prime works that could come on the market is very small; that of works legitimately out of Mexico and available to the open market is even smaller (I once counted twenty). A major work by Frida Kahlo (a medium sized self-portrait from a good year – late 30’s or early 40’s) now brings over $3million. Once I thought the Kahlo craze would end but I have changed my opinion. Considering how few paintings exist to satisfy the future demand of a generation that grew up with Frida as its inspiration, I now feel the likelihood these prices will come down is very small.

The critical issue of fakes in the marketplace arises in the case of Kahlo as well as that of many other Latin American artists whose prices have soared in the past twenty years. Whenever an artist’s work becomes valuable, fakes begin to appear. In the late 70’s, there would have been little advantage to fake a Cuban painting because, apart from Lam, the maximum that a fine Cuban work was worth was $25,000. As Cuban expatriates in Miami began to acquire more wealth, the picture changed. In 1988, a Mario Carreño, The Sugarcane Cutters 1943, brought $121,000. In May 1990, the same painting went for $286,000. Before 1992, the prices for works by the Cuban artist Mariano Rodriguez went from $1200 to $11,000. In 1993 a work by this artist, El gallo pintado, brought $299,000. Clearly an opportunity was presenting itself, and forgers mobilized into action. So too, in the case of Frida Kahlo. Before 1982, no work of hers had brought more than $56,000. In 1995 the IBM Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot, 1942, brought $3.192 million. In 1979 it was not worth faking a Frida Kahlo. By the late 90s, I was being offered at least one fake Frida a month!

The market for Wifredo Lam has increased steadily, as has the artist’s international reputation since the first sales. In the mid 70s Lam’s work was much admired by serious collectors of Modern Art but good examples were inexpensive. It was principally because of Lam’s introduction into the Latin American sales that the prices began to climb. In the perverse way that market psychology operates, when the paintings became more expensive, collectors of all nationalities started to respect them more. As the prices rose the urgency to capture an important example became greater and competition among bidders drove the prices of important works even higher.

For example, in November 1997, the cover of the Sotheby’s Latin American catalogue featured Lam’s Ogue Orissa, 1943. This had been the cover lot for the first Latin American auction in 1979, consigned by the Readers Digest Corporation. It was bought by a Venezuelan collector for the world’s record price of $99,000. Now, 18 years later, an American collector had to pay $1.3 million.
In May 1998 Lam’s La mañana verde, 1943, made its fourth appearance at auction in ten years. This was an acid test for the Lam market, since prices for major paintings usually suffer if they are offered for public resale too often. The work first came up at Christie’s in May 1987, fetching $418,000. It was resold at Christie’s in 1990 for a new record price, $605,000. The next sale was November 1994, where it fetched $965,000. Sotheby’s 1998 estimate of $1.2 to $1.8 million to me seemed daring, as they were gambling that a much traded work on paper would bring at least as much as Ogue Orissa, an oil on canvas that had been off the market for 18 years. In the end La mañana verde overcame strong odds and sold for $1.267 million. In the space of ten years the painting went from a European to a Miami Cuban, to a Colombian, to a Mexican to an Argentinean. The most recent purchaser is building a museum, so with luck this painting will cease to wander.

Collectors who enjoy reading about record prices should understand that auction houses and collectors seldom boast about the market when it drops. It is important to remember that prices fluctuate and there are no guarantees. It is useful to understand why prices are going up or down and the Tamayo market is a good one to study, since it covers all the years we are considering.

Tamayo is an internationally known artist whose market has suffered major shifts according to the economic situation in Mexico. This is not because Mexicans are the only buyers, but as they are major players in this market, their absence can precipitate deep plunges in the prices. When I first worked at Sotheby’s, in the late 60s and early 70s, it was possible to buy a standard sized oil by Tamayo for $15,000. His works had been handled by prestigious American and European dealers since the 40s. Tamayo had always taken steps to avoid being pigeon holed as a Mexican painter, and never even had a Mexican gallery. When his works came up at auction they were included in sales of Modern European or American paintings. The first Tamayo to achieve an important price, La máscara roja 1940, came up at Sotheby’s in 1973 in the Edith Halpert Estate sale . It sold for $50,000, to a Spanish collector. This was several years before the first Mexican auction.

With the inception of the Mexican and Latin American sales, Tamayo prices rose slowly but steadily, reaching a high mark of $125,000 before the 1982 Mexican devaluation. Because of this crisis, prices fell by at least 30 percent, and collectors who had cash available were able to take advantage of some wonderful bargains. By the late eighties the situation had improved markedly. In 1987 there was a large Tamayo retrospective exhibition in Mexico, followed by a series of 90th birthday exhibitions around the world. Tamayo had heart surgery in 1990 and died the following year. Prices rose during his illness and after his death. In 1992 the Mexican stock market boomed and super wealthy Mexicans began to drive up auction prices as never before. La máscara roja came up in 1993 and went to a European collector for over $1.5million. At the high point, Children Playing with Fire, 1947, which had been purchased at Sotheby’s in 1982 for $88,000 was resold at Christie’s in May 1994 for $2.2million to a Mexican. Then came the crisis of December 1994, with a tremendous devaluation of the peso, falling stocks and the Mexican economy in a tailspin. Desperate collectors started selling their Tamayos all at once, and the auction houses found it difficult to refuse them. The result was a disaster, with only a handful of the approximately 25 Tamayo paintings up for sale in the November 1995 auctions in New York finding buyers. In 1996 the auction houses greatly reduced the number of Tamayos they 1229059pted for sale, and refused to set high “reserves” (minimum prices). This started the healing process. With only eight Tamayos on the auction market in May 1996, six managed to sell. The prices were low, but in the case of high quality works it seemed a good time to buy.

Two years after the crash of 1994 and two years since the peak of the Tamayo market, a very interesting test case presented itself. La máscara roja, purchased in 1973 for $50,000 and in 1993 for $1,542,000 came up again! Here was a painting that had made a record price for Tamayo twice in the past, now included with very little fanfare as lot 19 of Sotheby’s Latin American sale on November 1996. The estimate was conservative, $900,000 to $1,200,000, below the purchase price achieved three years earlier. The painting sold for $992,500, or about 64% of what it had fetched in 1993. On the positive side, there were several bidders vying at this level and $992,500 was still almost twenty times the price for the same work in 1973. The sales history of this painting shows that over a long period Tamayo prices have risen dramatically. Yet those who buy at the top of the market cannot expect to sell quickly and make a profit.

Judging from the sales in 1997 and 1998, Tamayos have started climbing again and a complete recovery seems assured. The first sign was in November 1997 when Sotheby’s cover lot, Sandías, 1950 broke almost all records at $2,367 million. Six months later, in May 1998, Christie’s cover lot, the exceptional 1937 Tamayo, Músicos, made $827,500, well over the estimate. More significant to me however, was the success of a completely routine Tamayo, Hombre sacando la lengua, 1967, which sold for $442,500. Three years ago this painting would have been left at the altar. We all know that exceptional property does well, but when routine things start selling well, that indicates an improved market.

In contrast to the ups and downs of the Mexican market, certain Latin American works have risen steadily in the past few years, I think this reflects a change in collecting habits as well as a shift in buying patterns. Armando Morales is the most dramatic example, a late bloomer in market terms. Important works now command $300,000 to $400,000 and a good example by this Nicaraguan artist is now considered a “must” for a comprehensive Latin American collection. The collectors driving this market are largely from Central America, and their US base seems to be Miami. Their taste runs to the very colorful and richly detailed paintings of the later years, and those are the works that are now commanding the most at auction. This reverses the common trend in collecting, which usually places a higher premium on an artist’s earlier production. To a great extent the marketing efforts by his talented dealer, Claude Bernard, have molded these tastes and heightened the demand for the late paintings.

Another recent success story has been Tomas Sanchez, a mid-career Cuban whose prices have escalated sharply. In only eight years (the first painting sold at Christie’s in 1998) prices have gone from around $10,000 up to a record of $310,000 (Christie’s, May 1998). The impetus for this market seems more nostalgic than aesthetic. While the collecting base for Sanchez is no longer restricted to the original Cuban expatriates, cautious investors might think twice before jumping in so late in the game. It seems unlikely that these paintings can go much higher in the near term.

To date the record prices for Latin American paintings are all very close, around $3,000,000. It is the new invisible barrier. One day a painting will reach $4,000,000, perhaps a cubist Rivera, a Lam, a Matta or a Torres-García, and that will create the next barrier. The first record breakers were by artists with an international market – Matta, Rivera, Tamayo, Kahlo, Lam and Torres-García. Gradually the international market is broadening to include some formerly “local” favorites, like Carrington, Varo, Portinari, Berni, Pelaez and Tarsila do Amaral. This shift is due to the auctions (high prices have elevated the importance of Latin American art in the eyes of the outside world), to the mounting of numerous museum shows in the US and abroad, and to the gradual 1229059ptance of Latin American artists into mainstream galleries worldwide. Most significant to me is the crossover that is developing among the new young collectors. Unswayed by the dictates of conventional art history books, these collectors are buying what appeals to them and rejecting the fashionable US shopping list of the eighties (Fischl, Rothenberg, Blechner, Borofsky, et al). They are interested in contemporary Latin American art and have contributed to the rise in the careers of such artists as Luis Cruz Azaceta, Julio Galán, José Bedia, Nahum Zenil and Guillermo Kuitca. Blessed with an opportunity to travel frequently, these collectors are much less insular in their tastes than their parents’ generation. The idea of viewing art from Latin America horizontally across national lines rather than vertically by country has really taken root. It has come at an opportune time, breathing new life into a market that was struggling for definition. It will be revealing to see what develops next, as collectors make their preferences known. One thing is clear: the market looks very different in 1998 from the one I helped to launch in 1977.

Mary-Anne Martin, a native New Yorker, majored in English Literature at Smith and Barnard Colleges, and did graduate work in Art History at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. In 1966, she interrupted her graduate studies to temp as a secretary in Sotheby’s Impressionist Department (then called Parke-Bernet Galleries). This led to a thirteen year career with the auction house. Martin trained as an expert in Impressionist and Modern paintings, eventually becoming head of the Paintings Department as well as their first female Senior Vice-President. A trip to Mexico City in 1974 kindled her interest in Mexican Art, and in 1977 she organized for Sotheby’s the first auction of Mexican Paintings ever held in the United States. Latin American art, a broader designation, was Martin’s terminology, first used in 1979 for the Sotheby’s/Americas Society sale. The sale’s success led Martin to found Sotheby’s Latin American Paintings Department. Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art was founded in 1982, one of the first galleries in the US specializing in Latin American art. Mary-Anne Martin is a member of the Board of Directors of the Art Dealers Association of America and serves on its Executive Committee.