The Frida Fighters

Article excerpt

Byline: Jennie Yabroff

When it comes to forgery scandals, this one is the grandma of them all.

Frida Kahlo is, in the words of one of her many scholars, the most famous painter in the world. Not the most famous female painter, not the most famous Mexican painter, not even the most famous disabled painter, though she was all those things. (Also: bisexual, a communist, and the consort of Leon Trotsky, among others.) There are two-hour lines to get into the Kahlo retrospective in Berlin. This spring, a very small, obscure landscape by Kahlo sold at Christie's for more than $1 million--10 times the estimated price. Even Google marked her 100th birthday (though it apparently didn't know that she fudged her age). "Having something from Kahlo," says Salomon Grimberg, author of the Kahlo catalogue raisonne, "is like having a sliver from the true cross."

So it would seem a trove of Kahlo's possessions--paintings, but also letters, diaries with sexually explicit doodles, sketches, recipes, dresses, and other knick-knacks, including a box of stuffed hummingbirds--in a few trunks in the back room of an antiques shop in Mexico should arouse great excitement among the Kahlo experts. Yet it wasn't until 2009, when The New York Times announced the forthcoming publication of Finding Frida Kahlo, a book cataloging this eclectic collection, that the art world took notice--and not in a good way. A dozen Kahlo experts signed a letter denouncing the archive. The trust that controls Kahlo's copyright filed a criminal complaint demanding that the Mexican government investigate the origin of the works and attempted to block publication of the book. According to the small group of dealers, scholars, and experts who consider themselves the guardians of Kahlo's legacy, the archive is fake, and the couple who own it are either perpetrators or victims of one of the greatest art hoaxes in history.

Carlos and Leticia Noyola hardly seem like big-time art fences. They live in San Miguel de Allende, a small city in the interior of Mexico, where they run an antiques shop in a factory that has been converted into an indoor mall of art. In their capacious, cluttered store, La Buhardilla (The Attic), you can browse for religious statues, tiny votives, or ornate armoires that span almost an entire wall. Up until recently, the Kahlo archive was stored in a back office, though the Noyolas would gladly show it to tourists.

The Noyolas claim they have no intention of selling their collection and would like it go to a museum. According to the couple's reasoning, the experts are trying to discredit the archive because the raw nature of the contents threatens the popular idea of Kahlo's life and work. The Noyolas say it's time a small group of dealers and scholars stop controlling the artist's legacy. "The experts just know the Frida that was public," says Carlos Noyola. "This is the controversy: we have the real Frida, the personal and intimate Frida, and they have the Frida created by the New York market." The experts maintain that when it comes to suspected forgeries, works are guilty until proved innocent, and the Noyolas simply cannot prove their archive is real. Whatever the Noyolas have, they say, it's not Frida.

Authenticating artwork involves three factors: provenance (the paper trail of how the work got from the artist to the owner), connoisseurship (the opinion of experts), and science, with testing usually coming into play only after the other two factors have established a likelihood that the work is authentic. In the case of these Kahlos, the provenance is shaky. The Noyolas say they bought the archive from a lawyer who had acquired it from a woodcarver who worked for Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera. The Noyolas have a letter to the woodcarver from Kahlo, offering him the archive as payment for work he'd done, but the experts say no independent documents link him to Kahlo, and the letter must be fake. …