A Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait Could Fetch Over $30 Million at Sotheby’s—and Become the Priciest Work by a Female Artist Ever Sold

The painting, titled “Diego y yo (Diego and I),” would handily smash the record for Kahlo. 

An art handler holds Frida Kahlo's 1949 painting Diego y yo (Diego and I). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

This November, a prized Frida Kahlo self-portrait will hit the block at Sotheby’s, where it’s expected to shatter the artist’s auction record.

Completed in 1949, five years before her death in 1954, the painting is considered to be Kahlo’s final self-portrait “bust.” Titled Diego y yo (Diego and I), it depicts the Mexican artist’s tear-soaked visage with an image of her husband, Diego Rivera, on her forehead—symbolizing, perhaps, the space he took up in her psyche. 

The canvas will highlight Sotheby’s Modern Evening Sale in New York, where it will arrive with an estimate “in excess of $30 million,” according to an announcement from Sotheby’s. (A spokesperson from the auction house declined to elaborate on that phrasing but did confirm that the artwork carries an in-house guarantee.)

The sale—a rebrand of the auction house’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale—will take place the week of November 15, the representative explained, but a specific date has not yet been announced.

“A painting by Kahlo of this quality and excellence is a rarity at auction,” said the company’s co-head of Impressionist & Modern Art in New York, Julian Dawes, in a statement. The executive explained that when he looks at the artwork, he thinks about the phrase “abre los ojos”—Spanish for “open your eyes.”

“In the literal sense, it refers to the penetrating stare of Kahlo as the sitter of the portrait (and the double portrait of Rivera), but I think it also symbolizes the incredible moment this painting will surely usher in for Kahlo, as the market opens its eyes to Kahlo in a new way and secures her place in the auction echelon she belongs,” Dawes said.

Frida Kahlo, Diego y yo (Diego and I) (1949). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Frida Kahlo, Diego y yo (Diego and I) (1949). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In the book Imaging Her Selves: Frida Kahlo’s Poetics of Identity and Fragmentation, art historian Gannit Ankori connects the red dots on the green background around Kahlo’s head in Diego y yo to a (somewhat cryptic) quote by the artist about her relationship with Rivera from the same year it was made: “Within my role, difficult and obscure, of being an ally to an extraordinary being, I have the compensation that a green point has within it a great quantity of red: the compensation of equilibrium.”

According to Artnet’s Price Database, the highest price ever paid for a Kahlo work at public auction was $8 million at Christie’s in the spring of 2016. If Diego y yo were to meet its estimate, it would be the second-priciest work by a female artist ever sold at auction.

Given the extreme rarity of the work and the popularity of Kahlo, it is not a stretch to think that the sale could top the $44.4 million paid for Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 (1932) back in 2014, which currently holds the record for a work by a female artist. (Earlier this year, Artnet News’s Kenny Schachter reported that Sotheby’s held a private auction for a 1941 self-portrait by Kahlo, claiming the piece was sold for more than $130 million.) 

Diego y yo previously appeared at Sotheby’s in 1990, where it sold for $1.4 million—a record, at the time, for both a Kahlo painting and an artwork by a Latin American artist. 

Prior to the November evening sale, the painting will go on view at Sotheby’s branches in Hong Kong (October 7-11) and London (October 22-25) before making its way to New York. 

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