A Massive Trove of Art by Kahlo, Rivera, and Others Hangs in the Balance as Citigroup Prepares to Sell Off Its Mexican Bank

Even Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says he hopes the works will remain in the country.

The Citibanamex logo. Photo: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

The fate of around 2,000 Mexican artworks dating from the 18th century through today hang in the balance after their owner, Citigroup, decided to sell off Citibanamex, its Mexican retail banking operation.

The paintings, drawings, and other works, which are part of the Citibanamex collection, altogether constitue such a significant survey of art history that even Mexico’s president has commented on the situation.

Citibanamex, which was formed as an alliance between the National Bank of Mexico and Citigroup in 2001, says it won’t sell them on an individual basis; rather the collection will be included in the entirety of the bank’s sale.   

“It is an integral and indivisible part of what is for sale,” said Citibanamex corporate director Alberto Gómez Alcalá at a press conference this month, according to El País

Asked how much the artworks were worth, Gómez Alcalá said “the number in pesos and cents that we can give does not matter. We say that it is invaluable, that it is a characteristic hallmark of the [Citibanamex] brand, and we are sure that it will continue to be so.”

Among the artists represented in the collection are Mexicans Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco, as well as expatriates who called the country home like Leonora Carrington, Daniel Thomas Egerton, and Remedios Varo.

“More than 90 percent of the painting collection are Mexican artists, or foreign artists who painted Mexican themes,” Angélica Velázquez Guadarrama, an art historian who previously served as an advisor to Citibanamex’s cultural division, told El País

“It is the most important private painting collection in the country because it has been characterized by always buying work with a Mexican theme: the landscape, customs, etc.,” she added.

They have the works that you don’t find in the Munal [National Art Museum] or in the Chapultepec Castle. If you want a complete panorama of Mexican painting from the colonial era, in Mexico, you have to go to see this collection.”

“We’re talking about buildings and art collections of the best painters of Mexico and of the world,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said in a press briefing last week. “It’s cultural patrimony, and we’re looking for it to stay in our country.” 

He added: “We’re going to look at the legal aspects, but we do not want to create problems for the sale or create obstacles, because we want to show that in Mexico there is true rule of law and there are guarantees for investors.”

The country’s Foreign Secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, went one step further, taking to Twitter to say he believes the collection should be turned over to the state.

Gifting the artworks to the country, he said, would help make up for the federal government’s bailout of Citibanamex in the 1990s.

“Today, we Mexicans pay 43 billion annually for the bank bailout, of which a good part goes to the CitiBanamex Group, so it would be a great gesture to the Mexican people if this financial institution donated its artistic heritage to Mexico,” Ebrard wrote in a recent op-ed.

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