Setting a Kahlo drawing aflame in search of an NFT spark
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Setting a Kahlo drawing aflame in search of an NFT spark
In an undated image provided by J.R. Hutter, the businessman Martin Mobarak destroys what he heralded as a Frida Kahlo. Mobarak created 10,000 nonfungible tokens of the artwork. (J.R. Hutter via The New York Times)

by Zachary Small

First came the mariachi band, a flame-juggling dancer and the models in bathing suits and ballgowns sauntering beside the pool of a Miami mansion.

Then the spectacle began.

A businessperson who built his wealth on waves of speculation — riding the dot-com surge in the 1990s and then the rapid growth of bitcoin in recent years — popped a drawing out of its frame that he heralded as a page from Frida Kahlo’s personal diary.

Wearing a sequined blazer with the artist’s portrait on his back, he pinned the picture to a martini glass filled with blue rubbing alcohol. It was set aflame, and the artwork was reduced to ashes.

Attendees at the opulent July gathering, which was captured in a promotional video, had been notified that the drawing was being “transformed to live eternally in the digital realm” through the creation of non-fungible tokens that represented the “rebirth & immortality of a timeless piece.” Those who chose to buy an NFT with the ethereum cryptocurrency were promised exclusive access to events and the assurance that 30% of the proceeds would go toward charitable causes.

But with his entrance into the murky world of NFTs, the businessperson, Martin Mobarak, also generated incredulous headlines and an investigation by authorities in Mexico, which classifies Kahlo’s artworks as national monuments. Some observers doubted that a relatively unknown collector would have access to a rare Kahlo drawing, leading to accusations of fraud.

The destruction of “Fantasmones Siniestros” (“Sinister Ghosts”) was an example of the high-stakes brinkmanship common in the NFT market, where a 97% drop in trading volumes is pushing some to extremes. Selling cryptocurrencies and blockchain assets has often relied on hype cycles, and Mobarak acknowledged he was looking to stir controversy.

“I had to do something drastic to get attention,” he said in an extensive interview about the project, which went under the radar until Mexico announced its investigation in late September.

After burning the artwork, Mobarak’s Frida.NFT company created 10,000 non-fungible tokens of the piece. But only four of the NFTs have been sold, some at a steep discount, according to Etherscan, amounting to less than $11,200 for a piece that Mobarak personally valued at $10 million.

“From one angle, Frida.NFT is a brazen scam; from the other it looks like a crime against art history,” Ben Davis, who constructed a frame-by-frame analysis of Mobarak’s party in Miami for Artnet News, said in an email. “I am not sure which is worse.”

Mobarak said that by selling virtual copies of the Kahlo drawing, which features a surreal parade of animalistic monsters, he was democratizing access to something that had been sitting in a vault.

“If Frida Kahlo were alive today,” he said, “I would bet my life that if I asked to burn a small piece of her diary to bring some smiles and better quality of life to children, then she would say, ‘Go ahead and do it. I’ll light the fire.’”

Although the frenzy around NFTs has subsided since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when people stuck inside were looking for new outlets to spend money, they continue to allure a smaller number of artists, investors and hucksters.

Unlike tangible collectibles such as baseball cards, NFTs, which use the blockchain technology that publicly tracks ownership and undergirds cryptocurrency like bitcoin and ethereum, can provide their creator a cut of each sale on the secondary market. They can also be a vessel for discussions about value: Both a Jean-Michel Basquiat and a Bored Ape are worth only the price that two parties have agreed on.

Destroying an artist’s work in the name of crypto is not unprecedented. Last year, an original Banksy was burned during a livestream before an NFT representing the artwork was sold for $380,000. And Damien Hirst has burned millions of dollars worth of art for his “Currency” project, in which collectors were forced to decide whether to keep the physical or digital version of his dot paintings.

But NFTs are a relatively new arena for Mobarak, 57, a Mexican businessperson who lives in Miami. His first major business venture came during the 1990s ascent of web companies. After selling one of the first internet service providers in the Anchorage, Alaska, region before the dot-com bubble burst, he reinvented himself as an aircraft tycoon and then developed an interest in prospecting. A potential silver mine in Mexico never turned a profit. Bitcoin did.

Mobarak said he used some of that money to purchase the Kahlo drawing from a private collector in 2015, declining to say how much he spent on it or whom he bought it from. A provenance report that Mobarak had commissioned by Andrés Siegel, an art and antiques dealer in Mexico City, stated that a private collector had previously bought the work from a New York City gallery called Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art.

Martin confirmed to The New York Times that she had twice sold the work, which the heir of a Venezuelan art critic, Juan Röhl, had received as a gift from Kahlo. She first sold it in 2004 to the Vergel Foundation and then in 2013 to a private collector after it was consigned back by the foundation. It was then part of an exhibition that toured cultural institutions such as the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome.

Martin said she could not provide the private collector’s identity or confirm if the drawing that Mobarak burned in Miami was genuine.

A copy of the provenance report posted on the Frida.NFT website says the roughly 9-by-6-inch drawing was made around 1945 with watercolor, crayon, pencil, pen and sepia ink. “This work corresponds to the characteristics in style and materials used by Frida Kahlo in her diary housed in La Casa Azul in Coyoacán, Mexico,” Siegel wrote. He did not respond to requests for comment.

The artist’s works rarely come up for auction, making it difficult to assess their market value, but Kahlo completed about 150 paintings and a number of drawings before her death at 47.

If the artwork was indeed authentic, Mobarak could face legal repercussions; the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature, Mexico’s leading cultural authority, acknowledged its investigation but would not comment further. “The deliberate destruction of an artistic monument constitutes a crime in terms of the federal law on archaeological, artistic and historical monuments and zones,” the government said in a statement in September.

Gregorio Luke, a former Mexican diplomat and a previous director of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, said that breaking the Mexican monument law could lead to as much as a decadelong prison sentence and a fine equivalent to the artwork’s cost. “I think this man should be put in jail,” he said.

Leila Amineddoleh, a lawyer who specializes in art and cultural heritage law, said that she was not aware of any cases when Mexico had enforced its cultural patrimony laws for the destruction of artworks by Kahlo, but that Mobarak was in a legal conundrum.

“If he did actually burn it, he is breaking one law,” she said. “And if he didn’t, if it was a reproduction, then he might have violated copyright law. And if he copied the original with an intent to deceive, it could be fraud.”

Mobarak, who maintains that the Kahlo drawing was real, said he did not consult a lawyer before deciding to burn the artwork. The idea came to him after he noticed that an auction at Sotheby’s drew attention last year when one of Kahlo’s final self-portraits became the most expensive work of Latin American art ever sold at auction, at $34.9 million.

His event in Miami in July was hastily put together, according to Gabrielle Pelicci, who helped plan the evening with two weeks of notice. Referring to a charitable stunt that went viral on social media in 2014, she said Mobarak had hoped the burning would be like “the ice bucket challenge, but with fire.”

Yet it may be Mobarak’s reputation that has been singed. When asked if he wished he had not burned the Kahlo artwork, he took a long pause and sighed. “I like to say that I don’t regret it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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