Martín Mobarak burned what he says was a real Frida Kahlo drawing. (all images courtesy Melike Ayan, Mel Strategies; screenshot Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

In late July, crypto-businessman Martín Mobarak hosted a gaudy event at his Miami home — complete with flame throwers and posing models — during which he burned an allegedly authentic Frida Kahlo drawing into a martini glass while a mariachi band played in the background. He then announced his plans to sell the work in the form of 10,000 NFTs. Now, Mexico’s chief cultural authority, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBAL), is investigating the incident.

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, INBAL suggested that Mobarak may have broken federal law in destroying the work. The organization also stated that the collector did not seek the required permission to replicate the drawing, and questioned its authenticity.

In the video of the stunt, Mobarak is handed a black bag ostensibly containing Frida Kahlo’s 1944 “Fantasmones Siniestros,” a drawing on a double-sided page from one of the artist’s diaries. Mobarak unscrews the work from its frame, places it in a martini glass, and burns it, the ash falling onto dry ice. The camera pans away from the onlookers as a crowd cheers.

YouTube video

“History was made,” Mobarak said in a statement emailed to Hyperallergic. “I made this profound act for children and the less fortunate around the world to receive hope,” he added, explaining that his 11-year-old daughter has Crouzon syndrome. The project’s website, where Mobarak is selling the digital tokens for 3 ETH (around $1,350 for each NFT, and $13.5 million if he sells them all), explains that “a portion of the proceeds” will support the Autism Society, the Children’s Craniofacial Association, the Fundación Origen (an organization that helps women who have experienced violence), and Mexico City’s Frida Kahlo Museum and Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas.

Mobarak also pledged proceeds toward the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which INBAL stated that it has not and will not accept. INBAL also stated that, if the work is real, Mobarak’s action went against federal law: Frida Kahlo’s oeuvre has been designated a “national monument” since 1984 and its destruction is therefore illegal. Additionally, the Bank of Mexico, as trustee of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo estate, owns the reproduction rights to Kahlo’s work, but according to INBAL, Mobarak did not secure permission to reproduce the drawing.

When asked whether he sought permission to create NFTs of “Fantasmones Siniestros,” Mobarak simply stated, “I own the painting … By burning it, I am immortalizing [it.]” A statement on the project’s website similarly avoids acknowledging that the work was destroyed, cryptically declaring that it was “permanently transitioned into the Metaverse on July 30th, 2022.”

Mobarak with the alleged Kahlo drawing

James Oles, a professor and curator of Latin American art at Wellesley College near Boston, told Hyperallergic in an interview that Mexico’s enforcement of both copyright infringement and laws protecting the destruction of national monuments is limited, and that he doubted US authorities would intervene.

Whether the drawing is really by the hand of Kahlo is also under investigation by INBAL. Mobarak claims that he purchased the work in 2015 from a private collector. On the day he burned it, Mobarak attained an authentication certificate from a small gallery owner in Mexico City named Andrés Siegel. The certificate lists the drawing’s exhibition history, claiming that it was shown at institutions including Atlanta’s High Museum and the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. (The High Museum confirmed in an email to Hyperallergic that it displayed the work in 2013, and the Nelson Atkins Museum said that it received the work in the same year as part of a traveling exhibition but did not hang it.)

James Oles told Hyperallergic that “no one could tell from the video” whether the drawing was real or not.

Mary-Anne Martin, an established dealer who sold the drawing in 2004 and again in 2013, told VICE that she had never heard of Mobarak and called the situation “creepy.” Martin has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

Oles explained that the proliferation of fakes plagues Kahlo’s legacy. He added that although he cannot say for certain, when he watched the video of the drawing engulfed in flames, he thought the paper looked too crisp to have been 80 years old.

Oles also pointed out that if Mobarak does in fact own the original but burned a fake — and even if he succeeds in making millions from the NFTs — the value of the original would be unaffected.

“It’s a brilliant idea,” Oles said. “The only proof would be finding the real thing one day. Or there’s no proof.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.