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Latin American Sales Mirror Interest in Modernist Works

With new department heads presiding at both auction houses, the Sotheby’s and Christie’s Latin American art sales in New York from May 24-26 produced mixed results. Nonetheless they included some record prices and featured an expansion of interest in 20th-century art from the region.

NEW YORK—With new department heads presiding at both auction houses, the Sotheby’s and Christie’s Latin American art sales in New York from May 24-26 produced mixed results. Nonetheless they included some record prices and featured an expansion of interest in 20th-century art from the region.

At Sotheby’s, where Carmen Melián has taken over after years as a senior specialist under Kirsten Hammer, 78 percent of 191 lots were sold. The evening and day sales realized a total of $12.76 million, up from $9.8 million last spring. At the Christie’s auction, under new department head Virgilio Garza, the buy-in rate was higher as 61 percent of 182 lots fell for an $8.36 million total. This was up marginally from the $7.87 million realized in the Christie’s sale held in Paris last spring (see ANL, 6/22/04).

Sotheby’s had consignments from three important collections that had been pursued by both houses—those of Barbara and John Duncan, Dr. and Mrs. John A. Cook, and a set of works listed only as coming from a “Dallas private collection.”

That anonymous collection featured three paintings by Diego Rivera, among them a large-scale oil, La ofrenda, 1931, which went to an anonymous collector for $1.58 million, around the low estimate and the highest price in either house’s sales.

The Duncan works included a 1935 abstract oil by Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-Garcia, Constructivo en blanco y negro, which went to an American collector for an above-estimate $940,000, an auction record for the artist and the number two lot at Sotheby’s.

The Cook collection included two other Torres-Garcia paintings that sold in the top ten—Estructura, for $380,000 (estimate: $125,000/175,000); and Formas trabadas con figura humana, for $284,800 (estimate: $100,000/150,000)—as well as a bronze by the Chilean Surrealist Matta that, at $144,000 (estimate: $150,000/200,000), set a record for a Matta sculpture.

Melián told ARTnewsletter that “perhaps 40 to 50 percent of the sales were made to non-Latins,” extending a trend that has been going on for several years. She notes that among a range of works dating from as early as 1640 to the present, she had a set of colonial images “of a stature that we hadn’t had in a very long time” and calls the results “stupendous.”

This included auction records for Venezuelan Juan Pedro López ($144,000) and the early-17th-century Spanish-Mexican artist Fray Alonso Lopez de Herrera ($102,000). Among mid-20th-century modern works, records were set for Venezuelans Alejandro Otero ($162,000) and Carlos Cruz Diez ($57,000).

At Christie’s the top two lots were by Rufino Tamayo, with his Discusión acalorada, 1953, which had been consigned from the collection of Ruth and Harvey Kaplan, selling above estimate for $867,200; and the 1929 picture

La silla amarilla taking $744,000 (estimate: $700,000/900,000). Auction records were set in the top ten lots for Sitting Woman, 1976, a sculptural work by Fernando Botero ($688,000); and for La primavera, 1958, by the mid-20th-century Mexican abstract painter Pedro Coronel ($307,200).

Trade buyers paid well over estimates for Botero’s 1996 painting A Family, which fetched $732,800; and for the contemporary Chilean hyperrealist Claudio Bravo’s Untitled (Bolsas de papel), 1969, which went for $216,000 (estimate: $80,000/100,000). Outside the top ten at Christie’s, records were set as well for pieces by Carlos Amorales, Raul Anguiano, Enio Iommi and Victor Rodriguez.

“I think it has gone as far as it can go with the classic masters,” says New York dealer Mary-Anne Martin of the market generally, because of limits on supply as much as the high prices achieved. She adds that while in the past, interest in Latin American art revolved around “fruit, flowers and politics, there is a shifting pattern now to modernist work and with younger people more interested in the contemporary—not in their parents’—art.”

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