Diego Rivera – “I never believed in God, but I believe in Picasso”

[22 Mar 2007]


Diego RIVERA was a friend of many of the great modern artists, not only Pablo PICASSO but also Amedeo MODIGLIANI, who painted his portrait, Piet MONDRIAAN and André BRETON. In 1913, Rivera experimented with analytical cubism before developing a mature style with simplified forms and bright colours, christened “naif”. His career took off in his home country of Mexico with the painting of mural frescos whose overt political commitment had a massive impact in the spirit of the times.

By 1931, New York’s MOMA was already honouring him with a major retrospective show. Today, the artists greatest works are to be found in US and Mexican galleries. Those with the most Rivera works are, in the US, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (California), the San Diego Museum of Art (California), and in Mexico, the Fundación Proa de Buenos Aires, the Palacio de las Bellas Artes and the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino.

Major works are always put up for auction in the US at one of the big anglo-saxon houses, Sotheby’s or Christie’s, which together handle 94% of turnover in Rivera’s work on 84% of the lots sold. France and Mexico both sell 5% of lots, and take, respectively, 4% and less than 2% of turnover. The market for paintings is small: over the last five years only between 4 and 6 canvases have come up for auction annually and it is the rarity of masterpieces on the stands that explains Rivera’s high index: the entry price for anyone hoping to buy a Rivera oil painting is around EUR 100,000 but most of the quality works now sell for between EUR 300,000 and EUR 800,000.Over the last 15 years, 8 Riveras have reached more than a million dollars at auction, covering a wide range of subjects: still life, female portrait and landscape.

Each year, the auction houses offer between 20 and 50 of the artist’s works on paper, usually in watercolours or Indian ink. In 2006, the best-finished watercolours were selling for between EUR 30,000 and EUR 50,000 on average. For instance, the Vendedor de jarros (27.6 x 38.7 cm) offered by Sotheby’s NY on 20 November 2006 sold for USD 42,500 (more than EUR 33,100). It is nonetheless possible to acquire some of his watercolours on paper at just a tenth of this price range: these will be small format pieces such as Man with Rebozo (13 x 9 cm) which went under the hammer for USD 5,500 (nearly EUR 4,300) on 5 November 2006 in Los Angeles (at the Bonhams & Butterfields auction house). Studies in fusain (charcoal) also remain affordable, selling for between EUR 1,000 and EUR 10,000, which is the same as the average price for the best of the artist’s lithographs produced in editions of 100. In contrast, as soon as the charcoal works have added colour (pastels for instance), prices shoot up into the same bracket as the watercolours, etc.