Despite the unprecedented circumstances surrounding this year’s auctions, the surging market for works by
continued its steady ascent through the six- and seven-figure range. Leading the charge was the sale of Varo’s masterful canvas Armonía (Autorretrato Sugerente)
(1956), which surpassed its high estimate of $3 million without a hitch, leaving the floor of Sotheby’s marathon virtual auction
in June for a record-breaking $6.1 million. Varo’s previous auction record of $4.3 million was set in 2014 at Sotheby’s by her 1960 painting Hacia la Torre
. This season’s Sotheby’s sale also saw her 1959 painting Microcosmos (Determinismo)
sell close to its high estimate of $2 million, for $1.8 million, making it the fifth-highest price paid for the artist’s work at auction.
“A great Varo is worth its weight in gold,” said Wendi Norris, of Gallery Wendi Norris. Having represented Varo’s work for the past 18 years, Norris has become one of the de facto experts on the artist’s work, advising museum shows and auctions. “There is no estate or foundation,” she explained. “At the time that I started, her widower, Walter Gruen, was still alive; I was working primarily with him and a cadre of collectors.” Although she never met the artist in person (Varo died in 1963), Norris was in regular communication with her family and has visited Varo’s home in Mexico City multiple times. “Her work is so incredibly rare and so specific in the way that it’s made,” she said.
Born in Spain in 1908, Varo had already led an exceptionally colorful life by the time she fled to Mexico at the onset of World War II, joining the ranks of many other European artist expats, including
. Having left her first husband to live with the artist and activist Esteban Francés and then the poet Benjamin Péret in Paris in 1937, she was already actively involved in the Surrealist circle and knew Carrington, Paalen,
. In 1938, Varo’s work was included in the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris.
It was in Mexico, however, that Varo discovered her truest practice as an artist. Marrying her rigorous formal training with fantastic, Surrealist themes, Varo rendered her magical narratives with exceptional detail and imagination. She, along with Carrington and Horna (the trio was often referred to as “the three witches”), would form a vital nexus for the Surrealist movement in Mexico. Varo died of a heart attack in Mexico City at the age of 54.
Following fundamental laws of economics, the scarcity of Varo’s work is a simple but major driving factor in the increasingly high valuation of her market. “Varo passed away unexpectedly at the prime of her career,” explained Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art at Christie’s. “That, combined with the fact that her painting process was painstakingly slow, meant that she did not produce that many pictures.” Like many artists’ oeuvres, only a handful of Varo works are considered masterpieces. For Garza, those paintings are ones that include particular but quintessential elements—fantastic architecture, magically animated objects, and haunting, often indiscernible narratives. “Those are the pictures you see fetching the higher prices,” he said.