Art Market

Fernando Botero’s Journey from Aspiring Bullfighter to Art Market Powerhouse

Nicole Martinez
Dec 9, 2020 10:52PM
Fernando Botero
Self portrait, 1982
Galeria El Museo

Few can claim the ubiquity of Fernando Botero, an artist whose oeuvre is instantly recognizable and internationally revered. The sensuous, voluptuous curves and exaggerated forms of his figures are emblematic of an artist whose practice spans generations, techniques, and continents.

The Colombian artist maneuvers frequently between drawing, painting, and sculpture that fuses art historical tropes with commentary on subjects spanning political life and the mundane. He has exhibited in prestigious venues around the world, enjoying a level of success few categorically Latin American artists—or contemporary artists from any region—have achieved. He has shown at major museums in virtually every art market capital and in the Venice Biennale (twice); there is a museum in Bogotá dedicated to him; and his works regularly sell for upwards of $1 million on both the primary and secondary markets. Even at age 88, Botero is known to work as many as seven or eight hours a day—though this does little to quell demand for his multifarious artworks.

“There is a phenomenon that not even Picasso or Basquiat has achieved, which is that Botero is recognizable worldwide. From the collector to the guy that cleans the house or the driver, if they know two artists in the world, one of them will be Botero,” said Gary Nader, a dealer and collector whose Botero collection of just under 150 works is perhaps one of the largest in the world. “That type of recognition is very rare. That phenomenon is hard to repeat, and it has a value to the bank. Art, after all, is a brand.”

A young Botero finds his stride

Fernando Botero
Boy with a cigarette , 1968
Opera Gallery

Born in 1932 in Medellín, Botero and his two brothers were raised by his seamstress mother after his father died when Botero was just four years old. Growing up with very humble means, the young Botero indulged two passions: art and bullfighting. With limited access to a handful of reproductions of Old Masters and a penchant for attending bullfights with his uncle, Botero ultimately enrolled in a local tauromaquia academy at the age of 12. His first bull—a beast weighing 1,100 pounds that flung him high into the air before he fell painfully back to the ground—ended Botero’s fledging taurino career.

“He decided then and there he wanted to become an artist,” said the artist’s daughter Lina Botero, who collaborated with curator Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz on “Botero: 60 Years of Painting,” a retrospective exhibition of Botero’s paintings currently on view at CentroCentro in Madrid.

Botero’s illustrious career began at age 15, when he would sell his watercolors outside the Plaza de Toros ticket office, using his earnings to purchase entry into the fight. By 18, Botero had left Medellín for Bogotá to more seriously pursue his career. Between having his first solo exhibition at Bogotá’s Galería Leo Matiz in 1951 and nabbing second prize at the Salón de Artistas Colombianos in 1952 with a work entitled Frente al Mar (1952)—the painting was inspired by Botero’s interpretation of the antagonistic clashes between liberals and conservatives at the time—Botero amassed enough savings to take a long sojourn to Europe. It was there, his daughter Lina said, that his education as an artist began in earnest. Arriving first in Spain (he later traveled to Italy), Botero would “take his easel and his paintbrushes to the Prado and try to reproduce the brushstrokes and paintings of the Old Masters,” Lina said.

In the mid-1950s, Botero moved to Mexico City. Lina said her father developed his iconic style while living in Mexico, where he was deeply moved by a sense of nostalgia and the vibrant intensity of Latin American culture.

“In a way he found his style and subject matter in Mexico,” said Lina. “This whole encounter with Mexican art allowed him to turn back towards his own stories, his own reality, towards his own background, and put it in the center of his own artistic creation.” There, Botero began fusing the Old Master style he learned from the Italian painters with an exaggerated girth, rendering the figures on his canvases in increasingly voluminous shapes and painting quotidian scenes of his childhood in Medellín from memory.

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Fernando Botero
Colazione sull'erba , 2016
Barbara Paci Art Gallery

A few years later, Botero left Mexico for New York. At the dawn of the 1960s, the city’s Abstract Expressionists were still basking in the glow of their fame, and Pop artists were beginning to stake their claim to the avant-garde. Botero’s still lifes and figures weren’t the vogue, but a chance encounter with the legendary Dorothy Miller—then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art—would put his work on the map. Entering his studio at the suggestion of an artist she had come to visit in the same building, Miller purchased Mona Lisa, Age Twelve (1959) for the museum’s collection, a major stamp of approval for any artist—let alone a relative newcomer in his late twenties working in an anachronistic style.

From there, Botero enjoyed a steady rise to prominence, propelled by the unwavering support of collector Jean Aberbach, who would later introduce Botero to the principals of Marlborough Gallery. Botero had his first solo show with the gallery in 1972, and Marlborough positioned him for international success. Meanwhile, the artist continued to expand his practice, mastering sculpture and casting his inflated figures in bronze, with works ranging in size from tabletop to towering.

Beyond retrospectives in the 1970s—including at the the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas—an invitation in 1992 to exhibit his monumental sculptures on the Champs-Élysées in Paris represented another career-making moment as demand for Botero’s large-scale bronzes took off. Rising visibility allowed Botero to emerge as one of the most covetable contemporary artists and achieve astronomical prices. He is represented by both Marlborough and Zürich’s Galerie Gmurzynska (both declined to be interviewed for this story), the latter of which sold the large painting At the Park (2006) for $1.2 million and two smaller bronzes, Leda and the Swan (2006) and Donna seduta con mela (2011), for $400,000 each at the 2016 edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong. Nader claimed his 2019 exhibition of 14 monumental Botero sculptures on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road during Art Basel in Miami Beach garnered him an offer of $52 million for the entire suite of works.

According to Artsy data, the number of users inquiring about his works on the platform has grown every year since 2014. This upward trend has continued even after the number of Botero works uploaded to the platform plateaued in 2018. He has ranked among the 30 most in-demand artists on the platform, based on the number of inquiries on their work, every year since 2015.

Botero’s global renown and prolific and varied production have also fueled a thriving secondary market. “Really, the biggest and most obvious thing is that he’s his own brand,” said Kristen France, a vice president at Christie’s specializing in Latin American art. “He’s immediately recognizable. There can be collectors who don’t even look at Latin American art who immediately know who Botero is,” said France, noting that Botero collectors have hailed from Asia, Russia, South Africa, and the United States. “He is a market and a category outside of any other contemporary or Latin American subcategory that we talk about. He really is his own thing.”

Trailblazing his own market

Fernando Botero, Card Players, 1986. © 2020 Christie’s Images Limited. Courtesy of Christie’s

Prices for Botero works at auction have risen steadily since the early 2000s, when the sale of Latin American art really began to “take off,” said France. And the sheer volume of his works coming up for sale makes him a market force of unique heft: Since 2010, 109 Botero works have come to auction each year on average.

Most recently, Botero notched the top lot of the Latin American art sale held last month at Christie’s in New York when his painting Card Players (1986) sold for just over $2 million, significantly higher than its $1.5 million high estimate and good for his 10th-highest auction result. In the same auction, Christie’s also sold a small white marble sculpture, Horse with Saddle, for $600,000; two still-life paintings—Still Life with Pineapple (1988) and Naturaleza muerta con sopa caliente (1968)—for $425,000 and $400,000, respectively; and the charcoal and watercolor composition The Street (2010) for $300,000. All told, the five Boteros accounted for more than 41 percent of the 53-lot sale’s total value of $8.9 million.

Fernando Botero, Horse with Saddle, n.d. © 2020 Christie’s Images Limited. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Those results are in keeping with figures from sales at Bonhams and Sotheby’s in recent years. Botero’s current auction record stands at $2.9 million and was set by Adam and Eve (2003), a pair of monumental bronze sculptures sold at Bonhams in London in 2018. His top painting at auction, La casa de las gemelas arias (1973), fetched $2.1 million in 2014 at Sotheby’s. His top four auction records are for large-scale bronzes, but overall, his top 10 results are evenly split between paintings and sculptures that have sold for figures between $2 million and $3 million.

Botero’s auction results align squarely with what both Nader and France described as the hierarchy for demand of Botero works. Generally speaking, collectors will look first to subject matter versus opting for any particular size or medium. Paintings or sculptures with Botero’s voluminous figures tend to fare better than his still lifes, with series featuring musicians, dancers, and bullfighters pulling the highest interest.

Fernando Botero, Still Life with Pineapples, 1988. © 2020 Christie’s Images Limited. Courtesy of Christie’s.

“By and large, anything with a group scene, be it sculpture or paintings, commands a certain price and a certain desirability,” said France. “Those compositions are really the ones where you can see and appreciate what makes Botero so fantastic—that he puts within all these compositions these anecdotal scenes of the little moments in life.”

With a style so singular it’s become universally appealing, Botero continues to thrive as one of the most successful Latin American artists today.

“He always says that the most important contribution an artist can make to the history of art is his style, because the style represents the totality of conviction of what he thinks art is all about,” said the artist’s daughter Lina. “My father’s work doesn’t need an explanation. People from all over the world and different cultures where his work has been exhibited are awakened with the same enthusiasm, because there’s something there that they recognize in themselves, as well.”

Nicole Martinez