SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — In a back room tucked behind an antiques gallery in this cobblestone mountain town there is a shrine to the painter Frida Kahlo.
A dozen paintings jostle for wall space. A trunk is open to show off folded huipiles, the traditional Oaxacan blouses that Kahlo favored. Loose-leaf binders hold copies of pages of notes scribbled at dawn and airmail letters never sent, filled with anger and passion for her husband, Diego Rivera, the muralist.

The question is whether any of it was hers.

Carlos Noyola, the art and antiques dealer who acquired the collection, says he has proved that it is. There are 1,200 items, worth a fortune if they were Kahlo’s, everything from stuffed hummingbirds, like the one she wears as a necklace in a 1940 self-portrait, to a small notebook of private thoughts and sexually explicit drawings.

But the publication by Princeton Architectural Press of a glossy art book in the United States about the trove has mobilized a diverse group of experts in Mexico, the United States and Europe who say that the objects are fake. Last week the Mexican government trust that controls the copyright to Kahlo’s work filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Noyola, a measure aimed at investigating the works. The trust is also investigating legal recourse in the United States to halt sale of the books.

None of the experts have been to San Miguel de Allende and are basing their opinions on reproductions of the items there. Mary-Anne Martin, a New York dealer in Latin American art, said in an e-mail message that she had “seen photographs of many of the works in this collection” and had “read the provenance and all the material provided.” She added, “On the basis of the style and execution of the paintings and drawings, the character and the content of the letters, recipes and diary pages, I can tell you that they are fake.”

The book, “Finding Frida Kahlo,” scheduled for publication on Nov. 1 but already available on Amazon and elsewhere, contains lavish illustrations of many items in the collection. The announcement of the book was picked up by The New York Times, which reported on the collection in a brief article on June 26 before questions of authenticity arose.

In an essay the book’s author, Barbara Levine, a former director of exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, raises the possibility that the collection is not genuine but concludes, “This archive in five cases offers us an intact album of Frida Kahlo’s world, and how she imagined her place in it.” The ambiguity is relegated to the book’s fine print. The book includes a lengthy interview in which Mr. Noyola and his wife, Leticia Fernández, describe how they bought the collection and their efforts to authenticate it.

Beginning in 2004, the couple said, they bought the items from a reclusive Mexico City lawyer, who told them that he had acquired them from a woodcarver who had made frames for Kahlo. She trusted him so much that she gave the woodcarver several suitcases and boxes full of her most intimate possessions. The Noyolas tracked down a photograph of the woodcarver, Abraham Jiménez López, which appears in the book.

They had the works authenticated by Ruth Alvarado, Rivera’s granddaughter, who died two years ago. They also consulted three artists who studied and worked with Kahlo and Rivera in the 1940s. One of them, Arturo García Bustos, signed numerous certificates of authentication for the works. Mr. García Bustos said that he recognized Kahlo’s hand in the work. “I observed, I knew the maestra’s personality,” he said, using the Spanish term of respect for a teacher and also an artist. “I see it reflected in the works of the collection.”

The Noyolas also hired a handwriting expert recognized by Mexican courts and an expert in chemical analysis who works with the government’s National Institute of Fine Arts. Both presented evidence to suggest that the trove could be real.

Ms. Levine, who moved here a couple of years ago, said a friend told her about the collection as she was preparing a book about how people assemble their personal archives. Neither an expert on Kahlo nor a Spanish speaker, Ms. Levine, the author of two earlier books for Princeton Architectural Press, said she was initially hesitant. But Ms. Levine put her doubt aside and wrote about a collection that she said “hovers between fact and fiction.”

“As a landscape it’s incredibly beautiful,” she said. “I kept coming back to the same thought: If this is completely inauthentic, if Kahlo or somebody close to her had no hand in this, then who would make such a compelling fictitious archive?”

“Would this material be interesting if it wasn’t Frida Kahlo?” she added. “Well, yes it is.”
But such arguments do nothing to sway critics like Hilda Trujillo Soto, adjunct director at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. “The title and the text trick people who buy the book in good faith thinking that it’s about Frida,” she said. “The publisher is taking a cynical attitude. They are disseminating Frida Kahlo fakes.”
Katharine Myers, publicity director of Princeton Architectural Press, said that the publisher would continue to sell the book because it clearly states that the objects are still under study.

Authenticating art is by its nature subjective, the result of years of experience. One of the foremost Kahlo scholars, Salomon Grimberg, a co-author of Kahlo’s catalogue raisonné and the author of several studies on Kahlo, said he believed the collection was fake. Seeing the originals of the letters, he said, is unnecessary. “I know the handwriting. The content of these letters is not accurate. It has nothing to do with what she thought.”

Pedro Diego Alvarado, Ms. Alvarado’s brother, who has led much of the opposition to the book, said that Kahlo gave away few paintings and that her possessions were packed in trunks that Rivera kept in her house. “If these diaries had existed, why should she give them to this woodcarver?” Mr. Alvarado asked.

Juan Coronel, another Rivera grandson and a curator who has not joined the public argument, saw some of the original items when they were displayed here in 2007.

Mr. Coronel was one of the curators of a centenary retrospective later that year. After looking at the technique, the handwriting, the pigments, the colors and other details, he said he decided not to include any of the works in the retrospective.

Even without the opinion of scholars, there are several apparent differences between the Noyolas’ collection and the vast archive that Kahlo left behind.

Throughout the Noyola collection, nearly every piece is signed “Frida K.,” a signature rarely seen in the collection of letters and other documents stored at the Frida Kahlo Museum, which was her house. “She changed her signature depending on who she wrote to,” Ms. Trujillo said.

The photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo took pictures of Kahlo’s work and there is not a single image of any of the works in the Noyola collection in that photographic archive, said Jay Oles, an art history professor at Wellesley College who has written on Kahlo.

The documents in her house show that Kahlo was quite methodical, dating her letters, filing documents, keeping detailed accounts. But there are no dates in the Noyola collection.

In contrast to the lack of dates, every page is signed, from scrawls on paper table mats to pages in a notebook of recipes, and in the little book the Noyolas say is her intimate diary. (The explicit drawings in those are initialed as well.)

While such discrepancies do not prove anything, they do raise significant questions. But Mr. Noyola wonders why the experts dismiss the opinions of those he consulted. He said that he had become the target of a group of powerful interests who wanted to keep their monopoly over Kahlo’s name and the right to study, sell and show her works. “They are slandering us,” he said. “They are terrified that this book will validate the work.”

Responding to the legal action in e-mail messages he sent to members of the news media and the art world, Mr. Noyola said he had spent four years studying the collection and concluded “that this material has a historic value far above the material value, which is what so worries this group of ‘profiteering custodians’ of the poor and limited memory of Frida Kahlo.”

Jennifer Thompson, editorial director of Princeton Architectural Press, said she had not consulted outside experts before signing up the book because she had confidence in the steps Mr. Noyola had taken to authenticate the works.

“We just fell in love with the material,” Ms. Thompson said. “There’s something so provocative and shocking about it. I think if it hadn’t been Kahlo it would still be interesting.”

When it was suggested by this reporter that any number of books in print could have offered a starting point for investigating the collection’s authenticity, she conceded, “We could have figured out who to call, and we didn’t.”

Published: September 28, 2009