Frida Kahlo, Niña con collar, 1929. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
For six decades, the whereabouts of Frida Kahlo’s 1929 painting Niña Con Collar remained unknown. The only evidence that oil-on-canvas portrait had even existed was a black-and-white photograph taken by Lola Álvarez Bravo in the artist’s catalogue raisonné from 1988. Now, the work has resurfaced at Sotheby’s and is slated to go to auction next week as part of the house’s Latin America: Modern Art sale, with an estimate of $1.5–2 million. But the story of how the work arrived at the auction house is about more than its expected price tag.
Niña Con Collar has remained with a single owner, one of the artist’s former assistants, since 1955, the year after Kahlo’s death at the age of 47. As a token of gratitude, Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera gifted the painting to this assistant, who had worked closely alongside the artist at her Mexico City studio.
While Kahlo is heralded as a Surrealist master today, this wasn’t always the case. “At the time, believe me, nobody cared about Frida Kahlo,” said Axel Stein, head of Latin American Art for Sotheby’s, of the mid-1950s. But, he says, the owner didn’t hold on to the piece for reasons of monetary value. “It is something that was very dear to [the owner] and she didn’t want to part with it,” Stein said, noting that the consigner is now in her nineties. “It was a memento for her. It was something she kept very close to her.”
The owner left Mexico with the painting in the 1950s, an important detail because the country now has strict national patrimony protection laws that prevent the export of artworks by certain significant artists. Kahlo is among those covered in the law, but her name was added to the list of protected artists well after the current owner left the country and, as such, “there really was no question of national patrimony,” said Stein. Now living in California where the work has been kept for over six decades, the owner reached out to the Mexico City branch of Sotheby’s this year and informed them that she was looking to sell the piece.
Since the 1980s, when Kahlo works sometimes failed to sell or sold for just tens of thousands of dollars, the artist’s auction record has reached significant new benchmarks. Just this year, Dos Desnudos en el Bosque (La Tierra Misma) (1939) sold for $8 million at Christie’s, setting a record price for the artist by coming in just above its low estimate. And while her works are museum staples, Kahlo’s pieces are comparatively rare in the market; before this year, the last time a Kahlo work went to auction was a decade ago, and it sold at Sotheby’s for $5.6 million. While these are significant sums, some have wondered why the auction records for Kahlo seem low when compared to her fame. Her pieces are certainly vied after on the international market, but strict export laws keeping her works in Mexico, as well as their relative scarcity (she only created about 200 pieces) are two contributing factors that have prevented regular market valuations of Kahlo’s work.
That small total output makes any rediscovery of a Kahlo work an exciting one. But this richly hued work is remarkable, especially when compared to the black-and-white image that has long represented it. “This is one of the first 25 paintings she ever did and they’re very vibrant, very basic colors,” said Stein. “The copper of the skin is very beautifully modulated but also the blue is super vibrant. The painting was kept in good condition.”
Though not a self-portrait, this figure is adorned with features resembling those that Kahlo used to depict herself, from the unibrow to a necklace. “The first thing that strikes you is the way the portrait is made—it’s a frontal portrait,” said Stein. “If you look at the self-portraits of Frida later on, you will find that her preferred portraits are frontal, looking straight into the eyes of the viewer.”
Among Kahlo’s output detailed in her catalogue raisonné, a few works are still missing, including the significant work The Wounded Table (1940), which was lost en route to Moscow in the 1950s. So even as Niña Con Collar returns to public view—you can see it in New York beginning on November 19th—in Stein’s words, “there is more of this mystery.”