A Mexican entrepreneur told a well-heeled crowd in Miami that what came next was “going to change the lives of thousands of children.” Then he set alight a drawing by Frida Kahlo, perhaps Mexico’s most famous artist.
The audience cheered. The whimsical sketches of a world-renowned painter who died 68 years ago would now live on in the form of 10,000 NFTs, or non-fungible tokens.
But the act has left art lovers aghast. In Mexico, government officials have indicated businessman Martin Mobarak may have violated a law that makes it a crime to intentionally damage an artistic monument. That Mobarak intends to donate some of the proceeds to charity hasn’t dampened the outrage.
On top of that, art historians and experts cautioned that it’s far from clear whether the burned drawing was a Kahlo original or a fake. Even the drawing’s value is disputed—Mobarak claims it was valued at more than $10 million, a price some experts said seems wildly inflated.
“The whole thing is creepy,” said Mary-Anne Martin, one of the top Latin American art dealers in the world, who twice sold the Kahlo drawing in question, once in 2004 to a foundation and again in 2013 to a private collector. She said she did not sell the drawing to Mobarak and had never heard of him before last week.
The ink and watercolor image at the center of the drama is fittingly named Fantasmones Siniestros, or Sinister Ghosts. The 9-inch-by-6-inch picture, which Kahlo drew in her diary, features a ghostly figure with enormous eyes intertwined with a giant fish, a broom, duck, bird, and other creatures against a green backdrop, with the phrase “Here are the sinister ghosts” scrawled across it.
Mobarak told VICE World News that he purchased the piece in 2015 from a private collector and that it sat in a safe for most of that time. Then on July 30, he hosted the event in Miami that featured a fire performer, mariachi band, and models posing in bathing suits. Mobarak stood before some 200 people gathered around a swimming pool, removed the drawing from its frame, attached the piece of paper to a martini glass, and set it on fire, according to a video posted online. The popular Mexican song “Cielito lindo” played in the background as the drawing turned to ash.
“People may see it as I destroyed it. But I didn’t,” Mobarak said. “This way I am bringing it to the world. I am letting everybody see it. I think it does more good for the world and makes a statement rather than just sitting in someone’s private collection.”
Mobarak is selling images of the original drawing as 10,000 NFTs, each for the price of 3 ETH on the Ethereum blockchain, roughly the equivalent of $4,000, for what he hopes will be a total of $40 million.
The NFT holders will receive high-resolution images of the front and back of the drawing, a copy of the certificate of authenticity, and “animated GIFs and short movie loops for displaying in digital picture frames or projecting onto walls,” according to a website that celebrates the “transition” of Kahlo’s drawing into the Metaverse.
“Mr. Mobarak’s vision is to introduce Frida’s work into the metaverse and leverage her powerful likeness to bring together a community of collectors, creators and art lovers on a mission to merge the traditional art world with the expanding potential of the digital art worlds in art and immortalize humanities story,” the website explains.
It also offers proof of what it says is the drawing’s authenticity: a paper signed by Mexican art dealer Andrés Siegel dated July 30, the morning of the burning, certifying that he believes the drawing is Kahlo’s “Sinister Ghosts.” Siegel, who owns a gallery in Mexico City, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Mobarak told VICE World News that immediately after Siegel examined the drawing, it was given to a private security company that had custody of the artwork until the moment it was burned.
But there are so many fake Kahlo paintings in the world that even a certificate of authenticity is dubious, especially when it doesn’t come from a top auction house, said James Oles, a specialist in Latin American art at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who stressed that he hadn’t inspected the drawing Mobarak burned and couldn’t opine on its authenticity.
“He destroyed the evidence that would determine whether it was real or not. Isn't that convenient?”
Damaging artwork and turning it into NFTs is a small but growing trend, as artists experiment with the idea of art in the digital world. In 2021, British artist Damien Hirst sold 10,000 paintings, each of which had its own corresponding NFT. He gave owners a year to decide whether they wanted the original or the NFT. Hirst now plans to burn the 4,581 paintings of owners who chose the NFT.
A collective called BurntBanksy also burnt an original piece of artwork by famed street artist Banksy to turn into a NFT, but they were partially inspired by the fact that Banksy famously self-destructed one of his own pieces, said Paul Dylan-Ennis, a professor at the University College Dublin who studies cryptocurrencies.
These kinds of stunts “should at least attempt to say something interesting about art or the medium of art,” Dylan-Ennis said, adding that wasn’t the case with the Kahlo drawing.
“The work of a renowned artist has been burned for a gauche metaverse project in the style of a fly-by-night NFT profile picture collection.”
Mobarak has promised that a portion of the proceeds from the NFT sales will go to organizations supporting battered women and children with autism, as well as prominent Mexican art institutions, including the Frida Kahlo museum. Whether they will accept his money is another question—Mexico’s National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature said on Tuesday that it would not and that it’s investigating whether the drawing Mobarak burned was an original.
“In Mexico, the deliberate destruction of an artistic monument constitutes a crime,” it said in a press release.
Kahlo’s artwork has become some of the most sought-after of any Latin American artist in recent decades. Long known as the wife of prominent Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo became a pop-culture icon after her death in 1954 at the age of 47, with her artwork routinely selling in the millions of dollars.
Converse, Zara and Forever 21 have sold clothes and shoes carrying Kahlo’s image, and in 2018 the toymaker Mattel launched the Frida Kahlo Barbie as part of its "inspiring women" series, despite the objections of Kahlo’s niece. Last year, Kahlo’s self-portrait “Diego y yo” sold for $34.9 million in a Sotheby’s auction, the most money ever paid for work by a Latin American artist.