If you’ve noticed the abundance of “Rare Frida Photos!” posts making their way around the Internet lately and thought to yourself, “Rare?! I’ve seen these before!,” you’re not alone. For Frida Kahlo aficionados, there comes a point at which we arrive at a sad realization: we’ve probably seen all there is to see. There isn’t much left to discover about Kahlo, at least not among the objects found in publicly accessible archives and art collections.
Every once in a while, though, something truly rare does turn up.
This week, a collection of handwritten letters Kahlo sent to José Bartolí, her Catalan lover, are scheduled to be auctioned off at Doyle New York Auctioneers and Appraisers. The letters, which have never been published, are expected to fetch between $80,000 and $120,000.
The winning bidder will become the new owner—and the first owner outside of the Bartolí family, which contacted Doyle about selling the letters after Bartolí’s death in 1995 – of the collection, which is comprised of approximately 25 signed letters and a number of enclosures, including drawings made by Kahlo and photos of her, some of them shot by famed portrait photographer Nickolas Muray (who himself had an affair with Kahlo). Kahlo signed the letters “Mara,” which, biographer Hayden Herrera wrote for the auction catalogue, may be short for “Maravillosa,” the name Bartolí used to address Kahlo. Some of the letters bear the impressions of Kahlo’s lips, the hot pink lipstick she used to kiss the thin paper still visible nearly 70 years after the letters were written.
Kahlo met Bartolí while both were in the New York Hospital for Special Surgery. After she was released and returned to Mexico, they continued a passionate correspondence. “Although Kahlo was deeply attached to [Diego] Rivera,” Herrera wrote in the catalogue, “these letters suggest that she would have left him in order to live with Bartolí…. Her love for Bartolí was passionate, carnal, tender, and maternal.”
The letters, which have been on view in a glass case at Doyle since the weekend, are extraordinary, especially for Kahlo fans who think they have seen everything there is to see from the artist’s oeuvre and personal ephemera on display at, for example, Casa Azul, her residence-turned-museum in Mexico City. When asked which museums or private collectors might bid on the letters, Peter Costanzo, Doyle’s director of Rare Books, Autographs, and Photographs, said, “Everyone knows about the auction.”
The question, though, is who can afford the letters and how they fit within a museum’s bigger collection. Since it’s not artwork, Costanzo explained, the letters might not be viewed as desirable objects for an art museum, and an institution like Casa Azul might not have the funding to be able to acquire the letters.
Still, the auction promises to be exciting and maybe even dramatic. With interest in Kahlo as high as it has ever been, bidding will likely be robust and lively. Even if you don’t have the pesos to raise a paddle to place your own bid, if you’re in NYC you can attend the auction and see who does; it’s open to the public and starts at 10 AM on Wednesday in the Doyle gallery at 175 East 87th Street.
Update 7/6/2015: The letters were sold on April 15, 2015 at Doyle New York for $137,000 – $17,000 more than expected – to a private collector in New York.