Finding Frida Kahlo: Controversy Calls into Question the Authentication of the Renowned Artist’s Work

IFAR Journal, Volume 11, nos. 3&4, 2010, published by the International Foundation for Art Research and may not be reproduced/distributed elsewhere without IFAR's permission.

Finding Frida Kahlo:

Controversy Calls into Question the Authentication of the Renowned Artist’s Work

By Jason Edward Kaufman*

 

There is keen interest in anything related to the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Over the past three decades, major exhibitions in the U.S., Mexico and Europe have examined her life and career, cementing her position in the history of art. Prices for her works have soared and her reputation has bloomed in the popular imagination since the 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera revealed the physical and emotional hardships she suffered. Kahlo has become a feminist icon and an international brand spawning a mugs-to-magnets merchandising operation and a 2002 Hollywood biopic.

Kahlo left no autobiography, and the 80 or so letters and a single diary published in the 1990s have not begun to slake the thirst for details and relics of her personal life. Scholars recently have begun to delve into her papers, which remain in the Casa Azul, her home and studio in Mexico City. According to officials of the trust that oversees the property, there are more than 22,000 letters and other documents, 5,300 photographs, 3,800 periodicals, and dozens of other items. The trove was sealed until the death of her husband Diego Rivera’s executor, the collector Dolores Olmedo Patiño, in 2002. Some legitimate Kahlo letters and drawings have come to light outside this repository as researchers have combed through the archives of her friends and acquaintances around the world. And occasionally an unknown work comes to light, such as the painting Survivor, 1938, formerly owned by Walter Pach included in the Latin American sale at Christie’s New York in May 2010 (Lot #27).

Kahlo’s works are quite rare – only around 200 oils – and her canonization has spurred an exponential rise in prices: A Kahlo self-portrait that brought $27,000 at auction in 1979 was sold privately to a European collection in 2005 for $5.25 million, and her well known oil painting The Little Deer, 1946, privately owned, is appraised for around $10 million, according to New York dealer Mary-Anne Martin, a specialist in the artist’s oeuvre. Martin bought the work for her gallery in 1983 for $44,000 and sold it in 1985.

Martin and other Kahlo experts have witnessed an increase in the number of questionable works, if not outright fakes circulating on the secondary market in recent decades, but nothing quite like the massive cache that emerged last year in Mexico. The “rediscovered” material includes more than 1,200 items – oil paintings, drawings, diaries, letters, painted boxes and ephemera. The owners characterize it as an archive assembled by Frida Kahlo, but the entire collection has been roundly rejected by the established authorities on the artist’s life and work, although other people have spoken out in favor.

The collection belongs to Carlos Noyola and his wife Leticia Fernández, owners of the antique store La Buhardilla Antiquarios in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The Noyolas say they purchased the items incrementally from 2004 to 2007 from a lawyer in Mexico City, Manuel Marcué, who in turn had bought them around 1979 from a woodcarver, Abraham Jiménez López, who allegedly received them from Kahlo possibly in lieu of payment for frames. The Noyola materials number around 17 oil paintings, more than 50 watercolors and pastels, 200 odd drawings and hundreds of letters, recipes, and other items, as well as suitcases and painted boxes, in which Kahlo ostensibly kept the material.

It is known that Kahlo and López were acquainted, but the Noyolas have not provided verifiable documentation confirming the alleged provenance. The woodcarver López died in the 1980s and Marcué – whom the Noyolas and others describe as “an eccentric” who lives in a filthy, gated “bunker” guarded by 200 dogs — has not made any public statement about the material. “The seller had gathered all the pieces from this archive and there were no more,” says Carlos Noyola, declining to say how much he paid to acquire them. [1]

Revelation of so much unknown material would be major news were it legitimate, but the consensus is that it is not. Mary-Anne Martin, who founded the Latin American art department at Sotheby’s in the late 1970s before opening her eponymous New York gallery specializing  in this field, denounces the Noyola material as “a gigantic hoax …The drawings are badly done, the writing infantile, the content crude; the anatomy drawings look like something from a butcher shop instruction book. The paintings are ‘pastiches,’ composites based on published works. The provenance provided is unverifiable and meaningless. There’s nothing I would like more than to discover a group of unknown works by Frida Kahlo, but there is no way on earth that any of these works could pass muster at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, or my gallery,” she says.

Dr. Salomon Grimberg, co-author of the 1988 Kahlo catalogue raisonné[2] says, “I have over forty years looking at the works of Frida and I can say that this is grotesque and vulgar.” Professor James Oles, a Wellesley College art historian and curator of Mexican modern art who has done research in Kahlo’s surviving archives at the Casa Azul, says, “Based on years of scholarship and careful looking at her archive letters, the formal quality of the drawing and the writing in the Noyola material seems to me completely wrong. Even after seeing examples in person, the amateur quality of drawings and letters, clearly done by different hands, filled with visual and orthographic errors, simply confirms this.”

 

THE DISCOVERY

The supposed trove became known to the public in December 2005, when a painting of a Frida-headed deer (based on her well-known The Little Deer) and four other alleged Kahlo paintings were “discovered” in Mexico and said to be among 283 related items. Several Mexican art historians and collectors, including critic Raquel Tibol, declared the works false.

In September 2008 around 250 items from the Noyola collection were published in a catalogue titled The Labyrinth of Frida Kahlo.[3] The volume includes a text by Jennifer Church, a philosophy professor specializing in gender studies at Vassar College, with no other publications in art history or Kahlo studies. The book also contains information from chemical analyses conducted by Church’s husband, Daniel Friedman, a “building diagnostician and forensic microscopist,” with no apparent experience in the technical analysis of works of art.[4] The catalogue was published by the Center for the Study of Mexican Art, in Guanajuato – apparently with support from the Noyolas — and had very limited distribution.

In June 2009 The New York Times [5]reported the purported discovery of the Noyola “archive” and announced a forthcoming publication by Princeton Architectural Press. That 256-page hardcover, Finding Frida Kahlo,[6] released in November 2009, includes reproductions of paintings, drawings, and handwritten letters, diaries, notes, trinkets and other ephemera all attributed to the artist. In publicity materials, New York-based Princeton Architectural Press (which has no connection to the university) described it as “an astonishing lost archive of one of the twentieth century’s most revered artists . . . full of ardent desires, seething fury, and outrageous humor.”

Finding Frida has an interview with the collectors in which they recount their acquisition of the work. The main essay is by Barbara Levine, a former director of exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who, like Church, spends time in San Miguel. The book is about “my personal encounter with the materials,” she says, adding that what interests her is how and why people assemble archives, rather than matters of attribution. Yet, in her essay Levine treats the material as if she had no doubts that it is Kahlo’s, describing her study as “about the personal belongings of an icon.”

At a panel discussion about the Noyola collection held at the public library in San Miguel on October 9, 2009, Levine told the audience, “I’m not a scientist, not an academic. I’m probably the least qualified person to write about Frida Kahlo.” She brought in as a secondary author Stephen Jaycox of San Francisco, with whom she has worked on library and archival exhibitions through a company called “project b” (presumably for “Barbara”) that offers curatorial services and sells vernacular photographs and ephemera. (Last year Levine sold 79 albums of vernacular photographs, dating from 1887 to 1938, to the International Center of Photography in New York.)

The Finding Frida book illustrates painted and drawn likenesses of Kahlo and Kahlo-related motifs, as well as letters and journal entries that touch on hot-button topics, from the artist’s alleged sexual affair with Trotsky to her lesbian activities. There also are a number of childlike pornographic sketches. By filling gaps in the artist’s personal life, the Noyola archive seems designed to entice the general public more than professional art historians or curators.

In August 2009, soon before the book’s public release, 10 Kahlo scholars and dealers from Mexico and the U.S. wrote a letter to the press and to Mexican government culture officials declaring that “all of the documents and works…are fakes.” They noted that Kahlo is designated artistic patrimony of the Mexican nation[7] — her works are subject to federal trade and export restrictions — and appealed to government culture agencies (the National Council for Culture and the Arts and the National Institute of Fine Arts) and to the protectors of the moral rights of Frida Kahlo (The Diego Rivera – Frida Kahlo Trust) “to put a stop to this type of fraud and clarify the situation.”[8]

The letter was signed by Grimberg, Martin, Oles, Herrera, Diego Rivera’s grandson Pedro Diego Alvarado, Teresa del Conde, the former director of the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, Galería de Arte Mexicano owners Alejandra Reygadas de Yturbe and Mariana Pérez Amor, art historian Irene Herner, and dealer Sandra Weisenthal.

Following notices in the Mexican press, an article (by this author) posted on The Art Newspaper website on August 20, 2009 precipitated headlines in newspapers and magazines around the world.[9] The controversy escalated when Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, who has viewed the works at the Noyolas’ gallery in San Miguel and believes they at least merit “serious study,” argued that the Noyola collection was being rejected, effectively, by a self-appointed “mafia” of experts.[10]

The experts objected that the Noyolas and, even more, an established U.S. press, had published the collection without consulting any of the most widely recognized authorities on Kahlo’s work. To the contrary, said the Noyolas:  Diego Rivera’s late granddaughter, Ruth Alvarado Rivera, and two former students of Kahlo, supported the attribution. “Out of all the contacts we know, [the Kahlo students] Arturo Garcia Bustos and Arturo Estrada [known as the ’Fridos’] are the living experts who spent more time with her and knew her better personally. So…we did involve the best known scholars of Frida’s work in our opinion,” Carlos Noyola stated in an email.

“We believe this collection contains authentic articles that belonged to Frida Kahlo,” he continued, but hedged his own endorsement of the work: “It would be irresponsible to claim that we know this for sure, just as we view as extremely irresponsible that some scholars claim to know the opposite with certainty even though they have not seen, much less studied the material.”
THE DALLAS SYMPOSIUM

This past February, a two-day symposium about the collection brought many of the parties together for the first time. Chris Byrne, co-founder of the Dallas Art Fair, had been following the attribution debate and organized the panel in conjunction with the fair (this writer was the moderator). Participants included Dr. Grimberg, Mary-Anne Martin, Professor Oles, Princeton Architectural Press publisher Kevin Lippert, and the owners of the disputed material, Carlos Noyola and Letitia Fernandez, who agreed to bring examples of the collection for display. Now, for the first time, the critics would be able to judge the actual works firsthand.

Declining to take part were the authors of the two Noyola books, Jennifer Church and Barbara Levine, and the Los Angeles Times’ critic Knight. In an email before the program, Church and Friedman evaded questions about presenting the disputed material as genuine. “We can’t help but wonder whether there are conflicts of interest that prevent these experts [the naysayers] from actually looking at the material and exposing their own reasoning to public scrutiny,” said Church, though it was she who refused to participate in the public forum. Levine similarly dodged the issue. “I became intrigued with the obvious question: If this was not an authentic lens on Kahlo’s world then who went to the extreme of constructing such a compelling fictitious archive?” she asked, adding, “I have the highest regard and appreciation for the authorities on Frida Kahlo and understand it may take years to fully evaluate each piece in the Noyola Collection in order to thoroughly reconcile authenticity, fact, and fiction.”

The Noyolas began by showing an infomercial-style video restating their initial claims. The video included interviews with the Fridos and a synopsis of an unpersuasive handwriting analysis by a Mexican graphologist named Juan R. Abraham Dergal comparing letters in the Noyola collection to known writings of Kahlo. Grimberg then dissected images from other collections that he said were pastiches of known works by Kahlo, likening the fabrications to works in the Noyola collection. Grimberg says that every element in Kahlo’s compositions carries specific metaphorical significance, but that not one of the works in the Noyola collection contains what he would deem her complex and personal way of composing. Indeed, he scoffs at some of the works. As he wrote in a follow-up email to this author: “How do they explain the self-portrait as a turtle, or the one in which she is wrapped with firecrackers and smiling at the viewer?”

In his email, he pointed out inconsistencies in some of the works the Noyolas displayed in Dallas. A drawing of Rivera, for example, could not be by Kahlo, he wrote, because it was based directly on the last photograph of Kahlo and Rivera taken days before her death. According to Grimberg, “Kahlo, under the effect of multiple medications, no longer had a hand steady enough to do a drawing as detailed as the one in the Noyola collection (which was not dated). When could she have done that portrait of Rivera if the photograph from which it was taken was published after her death?” he asked.

“My impression when seeing all the ‘self-portraits’ together,” he continued, “was that there was no coherency that pulled them together. Yes, they were all of the same person, but not made by the same person, but by different people.” Moreover, only one work, he noted, has areas of paint handling that resemble Kahlo’s careful technique, and that work – depicting a dead Frida-headed deer based on Kahlo’s The Little Deer – “is not Kahlo’s painting because the concept of the work as well as its execution were invented by someone who does not understand the depth of her iconography.”

Mary-Anne Martin made similar arguments at the symposium, referring to a variety of fakes she has encountered over the years that borrow features from known Kahlo works, then focusing on the Noyola variant on The Little Deer. Whereas the authentic work depicts the creature prancing and pierced with arrows, the Noyola version shows it collapsed in its death throes, prompting Martin to title it “The Little Dead Deer.”

Martin also noted that the late Ruth Alvarado Rivera, whom the Noyolas cite as a crucial supporter of their collection, was known to provide certificates of authenticity for works widely recognized as fakes, and that the opinions of Kahlo’s students, the “Fridos,” were similarly known to be unreliable.

Martin’s theory is that there is a workshop of at least several people that created the archive. “The perpetrators have constructed all these letters, poems, drawings and recipes, using Frida’s biography and her published letters as a roadmap,” she wrote this author before the symposium. The items were conveyed to the Noyolas in increments, perhaps because the material was being produced to order. Were such a workshop to exist, it may have produced more material than that owned by the Noyolas. Late last year a journalist for the Colombian magazine El Gatopardo went to Mexico City to investigate the Noyola archive. An antique dealer in the Plaza del Ángel showed him a painted box and an oil painting allegedly by Kahlo, and claimed to have hundreds of things he acquired from the artist’s photographer.

Kevin Lippert of Princeton Architectural Press confessed uncertainty about the attribution of the Noyola collection, denied wrongdoing in publishing the objects, and acknowledged that the resultant controversy was driving sales of the book. Tension at the program rose when Oles accused him of irresponsibly validating a major hoax. Oles tried to put the collection in the context of the history of art fraud, making reference to the famous Dutch forger Hans Van Meegeren who, in the mid twentieth century, forged Vermeers that fooled the experts. Oles then went on to say that he suspects, but cannot prove, that the Noyola collection is the work of multiple hands, possibly even some of Kahlos’ former students – the same octogenarians who appear in the Noyola video supporting the works’ attribution to Kahlo. An employee of the Noyolas, Jed Paradies – who participated in the panel, and has repeatedly defended the collection on line without disclosing that he is paid by its owners – demanded that Oles cut short his “outrageous” presentation, but Oles was allowed to continue.

Paradies argued that the conservation company that worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls had been paid to examine several items in the Noyola collection and that its report concluded that the works were created during the artist’s lifetime. But pressed, he and the Noyolas conceded that the conservator had said only that the materials were consistent with those used during her lifetime. The works could have been made later.

Not one of the experts who doubted the Kahlo attribution altered his or her opinion after examining the two dozen items brought by the Noyolas. (Ironically, although export of Kahlo works requires government approval, an export permit was apparently not required for the collectors to have driven their works from Mexico to Dallas, presumably because the attribution is not yet accepted.)

So there was an impasse, with both sides entrenched in their positions. Martin found the collectors’ defense surprisingly “organized and aggressive.” “I felt very discouraged after the symposium was over because I realized how futile it is to do battle with the fakers,” she wrote. Oles was not surprised that the Noyolas and their San Miguel allies defended the works, but he was “amazed” that the publisher had accepted the dubious material as possibly real. “This is a perversion of Frida Kahlo,” wrote Oles, “and it’s pernicious because [Kahlo]was complex and there were all these fictions that circulated around her. Scholars are trying to get behind all these scrims, and a book like this muddies the waters …The real problem,” he opined for emphasis, “is the absolute lack of professional standards at Princeton Architectural Press, to publish a book about an artist in which not a single leading scholar was consulted.”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

Carlos Noyola said later that as a Mexican with forty years experience in the art business, he believes the works are by Kahlo and that he knows better than American experts, who, he says, do not love art, do not love Mexico, and are in it for the money. The next step, he agreed, would be to submit the collection to an objective analysis by a museum or university laboratory.[11]

A great deal of money is at stake, but Noyola says that “the collection is not for sale and will not be available for sale in the future.” He does admit having sold some ceramics to an unidentified buyer, and at least several letters from the collection to an in-law of Jennifer Church, the author of the 2008 catalogue of the Noyola collection, but he has stated that the sale was rescinded when the buyers discovered that experts doubted that the material was authentic.[12] Noyola also sold a box of around 44 letters and other documents to American collector Graeme Howard in San Miguel. The director of the city’s federally dependent Nigromante Cultural Center, Francisco Vidargas, refused to exhibit the material, however, because he doubted its authenticity and felt pressured by the collector; Howard instead mounted an exhibition titled “The secret letters and drawings of Frida Kahlo” in a commercial store called Casa Maxwell in San Miguel in the fall of 2006.[13] At least one publisher in Mexico City, as well as The Alameda National Center for Latino Arts and Culture in San Antonio, Texas, and the University of Arizona Art Museum, also turned down offers to work with the material.

Carlos Phillips Olmedo, (the son of Dolores Olmedo Patiño), who is director of the Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Dolores Olmedo Patiño museums in Mexico City, and head of the executive committee of the Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo Trust, has denounced the Noyola collection as entirely false. He says the Trust, which represents the artists’ legal rights, is considering ways to deal with the rising tide of forgeries, and that it is considering assembling an international committee of experts to act as an authentication board. Their work would be published in various languages with proceeds paying for the ongoing project.[14]

Martin says the field is rife with fakes, a few of which have crept into prestigious exhibitions as part of package loan deals with other crucial works. For example, a painting depicting a fetus attached by an umbilical cord to a dead cactus is on display in the “Frida Kahlo-Retrospective” (April 30 to August 9, 2010) at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, labeled “attributed to Frida Kahlo.” Interestingly, it does not appear in the exhibition catalogue. The painting, which was purchased by Carlos Phillips Olmedo after his mother’s death, is deemed false by Martin, Oles and numerous experts. It was not included in the Kahlo retrospective at Tate Modern (2005) or the travelling show organized by the Walker Art Center (2007-08), though both featured paintings from the Olmedo collection. But it was in the Olmedo collection show at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in early 2010.[15] “Ironically, the only ‘pure’ test seems to be the American resale market,” says Martin. “The reputable auction houses and knowledgeable dealers will not knowingly offer fake works.  Not to say they can’t make mistakes, but the resale market is the acid test.”

Another irony is that given the market’s adoration of Kahlo and the contemporary art world’s fascination with archives and appropriation, had the Noyola collection been presented as a conceptual project – titled perhaps “Channelling Frida” – it likely would have been a great critical and economic success.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s Attorney General is midway into an investigation of the Noyola material in response to a criminal complaint[16] filed by the Rivera-Kahlo Trust in September 2009. The trust asked the government to bring the unknown forgers to justice. Noyola says that the denunciation was baseless and that he is considering reversing the tables and suing the trust and its administrator, Banco de Mexico, who he says offer no specific evidence of wrongdoing.[17] The federal culture agencies (CONACULTA and INBA) state that they do not issue certificates of authenticity, but courts could impose penalties should the inquiry produce evidence of a crime. The Attorney General’s office would not comment on the ongoing inquiry. But according to Noyola, in February, the government sent a photographer to document thousands of supposed Kahlo items in his antique shop. In an email, Noyola writes, “The Ministerio Publico in Mexico City now has a digital archive of the whole collection, and they have begun their investigation. Hopefully all of this will let us reach a consensus here in Mexico, soon.”

Jason Kaufman, the longtime Chief U.S. Correspondent for The Art Newspaper, is an art critic, reporter and editor based in New York.

 

[1] Email Carlos Noyola to this author (date). All other quotations in this article, unless otherwise noted, are documented and excerpted from emails to this author sent between August 2009 to May 2010.

[2] Helga Prignitz-Poda, Salamon Grimberg, Andrea Kettenmann, Frida Kahlo: das Gesamtwerk (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Neue Kritik, 1988).

[3] Jennifer Church, The Labyrinth of Frida Kahlo (San Miguel de Allende, Gunajuato, Mexico: Centro del Investigación del Arte Mexicano, 2008).

[4] Friedman posts his resume at http://www.inspectapedia.com/danbio.htm.

[5] Eve M. Kahn, “An Artist’s Treasures,” New York Times, June 25, 2009, Section C, p. 28.

[6] Barbara Levine, Finding Frida Kahlo: in Mexico, fifty-five years after the death of Frida Kahlo, in San Miguel de Allende (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).

[7] A 1984 Mexican decree designated all Frida Kahlo works national monuments. See: Decreto por el que se declara monumento artístico toda la obra de la artista mexicana Frida Kahlo Calderón, incluyendo la obra de caballete, la obra gráfica, los grabados y los documentos técnicos, sean propiedad de la Nación o de particulares, Dario Oficial de la Federación [D.O.] 18 de julio de 1984 (Mex.).

[8] The letter was published in Mexican newspapers including La Reforma. See “Refutan expertos libro sobre Frida,” Reforma, August 27, 2009.

[9] The Art Newspaper, September 2009, posted on line August 20, 2009:  http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Forthcoming-Frida-Kahlo-book-denounced-as-fake/18682 .

[10] Christopher Knight, “A Purported Frida Kahlo Archive is the Subject of Dispute,” Los Angeles Times, September 5, 2009, and “Fighting over Frida Kahlo, September 6, 2009, where he described the critics as “cogs iin the machinery of what could be called the Frida Kahlo industry.”

[11] Conversation with author, Dallas, February 7, 2010.

[12] Conversation with author, Dallas, February 7, 2010. See also El Gatopardo, December 2009-January 2010..

[13] “Frida Kahlo’s Secret Letters and Drawings,” Casa Maxwell, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, September 28, 2006 – June 30, 2007.

[14] See TK article. [NB – I couldn’t find the reference to this; please insert]

[15] “Frida Kahlo y su mundo,” Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, January 16 – April 18, 2010.

[16] En el Fideicomiso de los Museos Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, Pgr/Df/Spe-Xxvii/4396/09-09. http://www.presidencia.gob.mx/prensa/?contenido=48620

[17] Conversation with author, Dallas, February 7, 2010.

This article appeared in IFAR Journal, Volume 11, nos. 3&4, 2010, published by the International Foundation for Art Research and may not be reproduced/distributed elsewhere without IFAR’s permission.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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