October 2006, page 116
Daniel Grant, ARTnews

The market for artwork by Latin Americans has grown significantly in recent years, especially the secondary market, where prices for the biggest names - including Fernando Botero, Frida Kahlo, Wifredo Lam, and Roberto Matta - have surged.

In May, a 1943 self-portrait by Kahlo brought $5.6 million at Sotheby's in New York, the highest price ever paid for a work by a Latin American artist at auction (estimate: $5 Million/$7 million). In 1982, New York dealer Mary-Anne Martin sold the same painting privately for $60,000, she says. Another record price at Sotheby's was the $3.7 million paid for the 1974 bronze sculpture Grupo de cuatro mujeres de pie (estimate: $700,000/$900,000), by Costa Rican-born Mexican sculptor Francisco Zúñiga. Two large paintings by Botero drew a record $2.03 million each at Christie's and Sotheby's May Latin American sales.

The sales volume at Latin American auctions has exploded as well. Totals at Christie's and Sotheby's in May nearly doubled those from the year before - Sotheby's yielded $23 million, compared with $12.7 million last year, and Christie's generated $16.3 million, compared with $8.3 million. At auctions in December 2002, Sotheby's posted a total $8.8 million while Christie's took in $4.8 million.

Furthermore, the traditional poll of collectors has expanded beyond the Americans. "During the sales, we have Europeans in the room, Asians on the phone," says Virgilio Garza, director of the Latin American-art department at Christie's. Dealers and auction-house experts say U.S. buyers of Latin American art have historically been concentrated in areas with sizable Latino populations. Martin, who founded the Latin American-art department at Sotheby's in 1977, says that roughly 40 percent of her buyers live in Miami and are the children of immigrant Latinos "looking to rediscover their roots." She estimates that another 15 percent of her clients live in Latin America, particularly in Chile, Mexico and Panama. Miami dealers Virginia Miller and Dorothy Long both say that Latin Americans and Americans of Latino descent account for about 60 percent of their sales.

Chicago-based dealer Aldo Castillo, on the other hand, says only about 10 percent of his sales are to Latinos; the rest are to "a general public," including museums, dealers, art consultants, and collectors looking for investment pieces. In some cases non-Latino buyers are building collections that are specifically Latin American art, says Martin, but more often, they are simply buying Latin artworks they enjoy. Dealers like Castillo report that there is also a thriving primary market in the United States for less expensive works by younger artists from such countries as Columbia, Mexico and Panama. "Young collectors want to get on the bandwagon before it becomes the next Chinese art," says Lisa Pursell, associate director of New York's latincollector gallery. In May, 15 of the 22 paintings by Cuban-born artist José Bedia on view at Miami's Frederic Snitzer gallery were sold to private collectors, at prices from $30,000 to $35,000. Last February, Miller sold out an exhibition of graphite-and-charcoal drawings (priced between $6,500 and $25,000) by Mexican Artist Hugo Crosthwaite, and the buyers, she says, included the San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California.

Museum acquisitions and research play an important part in the increasing demand for Latin American art. In 1988 the San Antonio Museum of Art opened the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art. At the University of Texas in Austin, the Jack S. Blanton Museum houses a collection of 1,800 modern and contemporary Latin works and recently integrated 125 into its permanent installation. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Center for the Arts of the Americas houses one of the largest Latin art collections in the United States. The commitment demonstrated by institutions "has validated the whole field," says Mari Carmen Ramirez, director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. "I've been in this field for 20 years, and back in the beginning, it was difficult to sell an exhibition to any museum and get any money to pay for it." These days, she says, "it's normal to see Latin American artists exhibited in museums, at art fairs, and in biennials around the world."