Collection of Frida Kahlo Letters Auctioned for $137,000

Peter Costanzo of Doyle, auctioning Lot #231, a collection of letters from Frida Kahlo to her lover, José Bartolí. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
Peter Costanzo of Doyle, auctioning Lot #231, a collection of letters from Frida Kahlo to her lover, José Bartolí. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

The mystery buyer arrived at the auction of 582 lots approximately five minutes before Peter Costanzo, Vice President of Doyle New York Auctioneers and Appraisers and the auctioneer for the first half of Wednesday’s sale, opened bids for Lot #231, “an important unpublished archive of approximately twenty-five autograph letters to José Bartolí, with photographs and various enclosures.” Seven minutes later, and just two minutes into bidding on Lot #231, the woman wielding paddle #283 was declared the winning bidder, with the coveted collection of letters going for $110,000, $10,000 below what the auction house estimated as the high bid range for the lot.

As is the custom at U.S. auctions, the bidder was not identified by name, though Doyle indicated to at least one outlet that the winning bidder, an Asian woman who made her bid from the floor, was a New York City-based artist and art collector. Bidding started at 12:55 PM, nearly three hours after the highly anticipated auction opened. Just over a dozen people were in attendance, with the winning bidder the only member of those assembled who entered a competitive sum. She responded immediately when bidding opened at $60,000 and offered counter bids as other offers came in by phone and Internet.

Costanzo, who indicated during previews of the letters that “everyone” in the art world knew about the auction, declined to reveal which museums and cultural institutions might be bidding for the lot of letters, which Kahlo wrote to her lover, José Bartolí, in the 1940s. In addition to the letters, the lot contained drawings made by Kahlo and photos of her, including some by renowned photographer Nickolas Muray, who had had his own affair with Kahlo. Costanzo said that museums might find it hard to vie for the collection, as the objects wouldn’t fit neatly amidst artworks, and institutions like Mexico City’s Casa Azul, the house where Kahlo was born, where she lived with muralist Diego Rivera, and which is now a museum, might find it difficult to raise the kind of money required to purchase such a valuable collection. Costanzo’s observation seemed to play out in the gallery on Wednesday, as the volley of offers and counter-offers was somewhat lethargic. After offering her final bid of $110,000, Costanzo held off on confirming her as the new owner of the letters until several phone and online bidders were asked directly if they wanted to up the ante.

They did not. After Costanzo issued a final warning and the bid was sealed, the winner was whisked away by Doyle staff, who added a $27,000 buyer premium to the bid, bringing the total to $137,000.