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Forthcoming Frida Kahlo book denounced as fake

Art historians assert that “lost archive” of paintings, drawings and diaries are forged

new york. A collection of Frida Kahlo oil paintings, diaries and archival material that is the subject of a book to be published by Princeton Architectural Press on 1 November has been denounced by scholars as a cache of fakes. Finding Frida Kahlo includes reproductions of paintings, drawings and handwritten letters, diaries, notes, trinkets and other ephemera attributed to the artist. They belong to Carlos Noyola and Leticia Fernández, a couple who own the antique store La Buhardilla Antiquarios in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The publisher describes 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”.

According to an interview in the forthcoming book, and to emails from Noyola to The Art Newspaper, the couple acquired the items incrementally from 2004-07 from a lawyer who in turn had acquired them from a woodcarver who allegedly received them from the artist. Noyola tells The Art Newspaper he has more than 1,200 Kahlo items in all. He would not disclose how much he paid, but says: “We did acquire the collection with the belief and some groundwork done to prove that it is in fact authentic and thus paid accordingly.” He states that the collection is not for sale and will not be for sale in the future.

The author of the 256-page illustrated book is Barbara Levine, a former director of exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art who operates a curatorial services company called Project b. She brought in as a secondary author Stephen Jaycox of San Francisco, with whom she has worked on archive and library exhibitions.

In an email to The Art Newspaper, Levine says that she is “not working for the Noyolas and the Noyolas did not fund any portion of the book”. She describes Finding Frida Kahlo as “my personal encounter with the materials”, and says that the study is “about the personal belongings of an icon not from the point of view of telling her story or contributing to her place in art history, but instead from the perspective of our essential human need to accumulate talismans, keep scraps to remember, track time and leave legacy”.

“If I had made an art historical book about Kahlo or set out to prove the authenticity of the Noyola collection it would have been appropriate for me to consult with Frida Kahlo experts,” she says, adding that experts’ rejection of the collection is “understandable” because “art forgeries are common and historical discoveries are hard to believe when they occur outside of an institutional context”. She adds: “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.”

“In my view the publishers have been the victims of a gigantic hoax,” says New York-based Latin American art dealer Mary-Anne Martin, who has bought and sold numerous works by Kahlo (1907-54). “The perpetrators have constructed all these letters, poems, drawings and recipes, using Frida's biography and her published letters as a roadmap. 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. I am astounded it has gone as far as it has.”

According to a statement from Princeton Architectural Press: “These doubts are explored directly in the book, including a lengthy interview with the owners of the store and collection, the Noyola family, who believe, based on analyses by a chemical engineer and a graphologist, as well as interviews with members of the Kahlo family and some of her followers and students, that the materials in the cases are legitimate.”

The supposed trove has been known since December 2005, when a painting of a Kahlo-headed deer (based on a well-known work by the artist) and four other alleged Kahlo paintings were “discovered” in Mexico and said to be among 283 related items. Several Mexican art historians and collectors declared the works false—Raquel Tibol told the press at the time that had this occurred in England, any person who made the fakes, sold them and owned them would be subject to prosecution.

In October 2008 around 75 items from the Noyola collection were reproduced in a catalogue published by Centro del Investigacion del Arte Mexicano (CIAM) in Guanajuato. The Labyrinth of Frida Kahlo includes a commentary by Jennifer Church, a philosophy professor at Vassar College, and paint, handwriting and provenance reports supporting the Kahlo material’s authenticity. Chemical analyses were conducted by Church’s husband Daniel Friedman, a “building diagnostician and forensics microscopist” according to his resumé, which lists no previous studies of works of art. “Our book does not include any statement of our opinion of the collection's authenticity; we are not art experts,” the couple write in an email to The Art Newspaper. “Our correspondence with some self-appointed authorities has been frustrating,” they add, “insofar as none of them have cited any specific reasons in support of their scepticism. We can't help but wonder whether there are conflicts of interest that prevent these experts from actually looking at the material and exposing their own reasoning to public scrutiny.”

In June, the New York Times announced the discovery of Noyola’s little known collection as well as the forthcoming book by Princeton Architectural Press.

But earlier this month, on the eve of the new publication, a group of leading Kahlo scholars issued a letter to the press and to Mexican culture officials declaring that “all of the documents and works in [the collection] are fakes”. Noting that Kahlo is designated Artistic Patrimony of the Mexican Nation they appeal to the National Council for Culture and the Arts (CONACULTA) and the National Instititue of Fine Arts (INBA), and to the protectors of the moral rights of Frida Kahlo “to put a stop to this type of fraud and clarify the situation”.

The letter was signed by Kahlo catalogue raisonné co-author Salomon Grimberg; Latin American art dealer and Kahlo expert Mary-Anne Martin; Sandra Weisenthal; art historian Irene Herner; Diego Rivera’s grandson Pedro Diego Alvarado; art historian, and former director of the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico, Teresa del Conde; Galeria de Arte Mexicano owners Alejandra Reygadas de Yturbe and Mariana Pérez Amor; Kahlo scholar and archival researcher James Oles; and Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera.

The experts note that the Noyolas excluded the most widely recognised experts from weighing in on the works. Levine, the author of the forthcoming book, writes: “I am not a Kahlo scholar; I have no credentials to support any opinions I might have had about the authenticity or importance of the material…My Spanish is limited.” The Noyolas say that they showed the works to Diego Rivera’s granddaughter Ruth Alvarado Rivera, who is no longer alive, and to former students of Kahlo. “Out of all the contacts we know, Arturo García Bustos and Arturo Estrada are the living experts who spent more time with her and knew her better personally. So I would like to point out that we DID involve the best known scholars of Frida's work in our opinion,” says Noyola. “None of the scholars that signed the letter have ever been in contact with us or seen the material personally.” Other experts note that the former friends of Frida, the so-called “Fridos”, are artists and not scholars of her work.

Carlos Phillips Olmedo, director of the Museo Frida Kahlo and a member of the executive committee of the trust that oversees the artist’s copyrights, has stated that the Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo trust does not recognise the Noyola collection as authentic works by Kahlo. Kahlo catalogue raisonné co-author Grimberg, speaking to the press last month, stated: “I have over 40 years of looking at the works of Frida and I can say that this is grotesque and vulgar.”

James Oles, an art historian based in Mexico City who has done extensive work on Kahlo’s surviving archives, says: “It’s the formal quality of the drawing and the writing that seems to me completely wrong. The subject matter is besides the point.” He says that fake works attributed to Kahlo, Siqueiros, Tamayo, Gerszo, Merida and other Latin American artists are not uncommon. “There’s more demand than there is supply in the market for Latin American modern art—and the academic market, as well—so a lot of things get by. Something like this by Picasso would never make it.”

Noyola is not dismissing the possibility that the works are false. “We aim to present this material and the data gathered from our investigation without making any assertions,” he says. “After all, authenticity is never certain. At present, we can say that we believe this collection contains authentic articles that belonged to Frida Kahlo.”

But many are outraged that the dubious artefacts are being published. “This is a perversion of Frida Kahlo,” says Oles. “It’s just like the ‘Hitler diaries’ that threatens to change history. And it’s pernicious because she 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.”

Finding Frida Kahlo, by Barbara Levine and Stephen Jaycox. Princeton Architectural Press, ISBN 9781568988306, 8.5 x 11 inches (21.6 x 27.9 cm), hardcover, 256 pages, 250 colour illustrations, $50 (£32). Publication date: 1 November, 2009

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