What you see: The Rivals, a 1931 painting by Diego Rivera. Christie’s sold it in May 2018 for $9.7 million, a record for the artist and for any Latin American artwork.
The expert: Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art for Christie’s.
First off, how rarely do Diego Rivera canvases of any kind come up for sale, let alone fresh-to-market works from the Rockefeller family? We get them from time to time. We actually just had a smaller canvas in the regular Latin American art sale. They are rare, but every now and then we do get some.
Have any other Diego Rivera canvases painted for members of the Rockefeller family come to auction? No, not directly from the Rockefeller family. The collection of David Rockefeller’s mother was bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and became part of their collection. MoMA deaccessed one in the 1960s, but it had been in the collection for decades. Technically the answer is no, no Diego Riveras for Rockefellers at auction.
Why is it called The Rivals? Do we see the rivals in the lower left corner? It’s actually the narrative of a festival in Oaxaca, Las Velas. Here, the confrontation goes on in the foreground. The third male [the man in the black hat] looks like he’s going to intervene, but we don’t know if they’re about to have a fight. That’s why it’s called The Rivals–the male characters.
The lot notes describes The Rivals as the ‘most important Rivera offered at auction in decades.’ What makes it so? A picture on this scale has not been seen for 20 years. The last great Diego Rivera was at auction in the 1990s, a much larger painting than ours, but similar subject matter. It was from the collection of IBM, and it sold at Sotheby’s.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $5 million to $7 million? We had some notion of work that had transacted privately recently. $5 million to $7 million became the low estimate of what we had in mind. We thought it would be [would sell] closer to $10 million, which it did. Not that we expected that–it was a wonderful surprise. The estimate needed to be fair but with room to grow and create competition. Sometimes bidders are guarded. Everything came together in the last two days. Six to eight people were interested in the painting and pursued it to the end.
Can you talk a bit about the importance of its having been commissioned from Rivera in 1931 by a member of the Rockefeller family? That is important. People like to know where things have been. Only the Rockefeller family owned it. That’s one aspect. The other aspect is that 1931 is a prime year for the artist. He was much-celebrated in Mexico and globally. It made his relationship with America very fruitful and complicated. It [The Rivals] precedes the painting of the Detroit murals. In 1931, MoMA did a Rivera retrospective, and this painting was part of it. All those factors make it very special.
What is The Rivals like in person? Beautiful. The colors are vibrant and fresh. All we did was have a conservator superficially clean it. Some of the characters are very abstracted, especially the women in the background–just the idea of a face. It really draws you in, almost like you’re watching a movie. It’s very cinematic in that way.
What was your role in the auction? I had a phone [he represented a bidder on the phone], but I didn’t have the winning bid. It was a multi-departmental sale for Christie’s. It had pre-war material, American art, and Latin American art. It was very dynamic for that reason alone. It was one of my favorite sales. Not only was it important, but it felt so energetic and dynamic, and there were some surprises. Everything that sold that night, five or six parties were interested. People love to see that. It’s exciting.
Were you there when the previous world auction record for Latin American art was set in 2016? Yes, I was in the room. I didn’t have the winning bid that evening.
A work by Frida Kahlo was the previous Latin American art record-holder. Could you talk about the significance of Kahlo, Rivera’s wife, handing the honor off to him? The Frida Kahlo sold in 2016 for $8 million. The market for Diego Rivera had not really moved in the high end. We really wanted it to be at the level of Frida Kahlo. We sold it [The Rivals] and surpassed it. Now Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo hold the top prices in Latin American art. I think it’s well-deserved.
How long do you think the records–for Rivera at auction, and for any work of Latin American art–will stand? It’s really unpredictable. Obviously, every season you hope, but the reality is you don’t really know. I’d like to see other Latin American artists get Mexican prices [Rivera and Kahlo were both Mexican].
The Rivals is pretty hard to beat, though. What could challenge it? Would it have to wait until this artwork comes back to auction? No, no. It would have to be something from a private collection. A few Frida Kahlos remain in private hands in Mexico. There are no plans for them to be sold, but maybe someday they could be. A few Wifredo Lams in Europe could do it. But it’s unpredictable, that’s the thing.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
Garza spoke to The Hot Bid earlier in 2018 about a Fernando Botero Circus painting.
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