How the art market undervalues art by women
Things are slowly changing, but the world’s most acclaimed, exhibited and popular women artists still sell for far less at auction than their male peers.
Hello to you all and welcome to the spring edition of the Priceless newsletter. May is always a really busy period for the art market in New York, as the city hosts a huge variety of art fairs, including Frieze, TEFAF, NADA and Volta, and marquee art auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips.
This May auction season was much more subdued than last November’s blockbuster sales, as uncertain economic conditions and higher interest rates finally began to bite. More lots didn’t sell, were withdrawn at the last minute, or failed to meet their pre-sale estimates.
Even against this backdrop, I’d hoped that Spider by Louise Bourgeois, created in 1996 and one of the artist’s monumental spider sculptures that can be seen in museums all over the world, would have fared a little better. It just sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary evening auction for $32.8 million, including the buyer’s premium, which made it a new auction record for Bourgeois by a small margin: another 1996 version of Spider sold at Christie’s in May 2019 for $32.1 million, including the buyer’s premium.
Spider, by Louise Bourgeois, which just sold for $32.8 million at Sotheby’s, setting a new auction record for the artist. Image credit: Sotheby’s.
However, this Spider had carried an estimate of $30 million to $40 million, and before the auction, there was speculation that it could potentially become the most expensive artwork by a woman ever sold at auction, a record currently held by Jimson Weed, a Georgia O’Keefe painting that sold at Sotheby’s in 2014 for $44.4 million.
The actual sale price of $32.8 million is obviously insanely large, even for a 10-foot-tall and 18-foot-wide spider, and out of reach of all but the world’s wealthiest art buyers. But when you consider that Jean-Michel Basquiat’s El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) sold for $67 million at Christie’s in the same week, which only made it the fourth most expensive Basquiat to sell at auction, it looks like an absolute bargain. If you take into account that Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, the most expensive twentieth century artwork ever sold at auction, fetched $195 million at Christie’s last year, it looks even more so.
This is a trend that can be seen throughout the auction market: art created by men sells for more than art created by women. In its Women Artists Market Report, published in March, Artsy found that more women command more top price tags in the art market today than they used to, but that there’s still a long way to go before parity is achieved. Of the $11 billion of artwork sold at auction in 2022, male artists’ works made up $9.7 billion, while women artists’ works accounted for just over $1 billion, or 9.3% of the total.
Of the top 1,000 most expensive works sold at auction in 2022, just 229 were by women artists. Only two women artists, Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois, featured in the top 100 list and no women at all made the top 50.
Pie chart from Artsy’s Women Artists Market Report.
Going back further, of the top 500 most expensive artworks sold between 2012 to 2022, just seven were by women artists, with Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed coming in at 154th on that list. I wrote back in 2018 that it was notable that Georgia O’Keeffe’s 2014 auction record for a woman artist had not been surpassed in four years. Given some of the stratospheric sales in the auction market since then, it’s even more remarkable today, and yet another indication of how works by top women artists that appear at auction look like great value for money.
Considering career and exhibition history
Conventional wisdom has it that an artist’s career track record and exhibition history at galleries and museums are reflected in the price of their art, but that is not necessarily the case for women artists in the auction market.
Take the example of Yayoi Kusama, one of the most popular living artists of our time and the subject of blockbuster museum and gallery shows all over the world. Her latest exhibition at David Zwirner gallery, I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers, opened in New York last week, featuring another one of her iconic Infinity Rooms, and is expected to draw even bigger crowds than her 2021 show at the gallery, which attracted over 94,000 visitors.
Installation view at Yayoi Kusama: I Spend Each Day Embracing Flowers. Photo credit: David Zwirner.
However, Kusama’s smallest pumpkin sculptures can be bought for a few hundred dollars and the auction record for a Kusama artwork is a comparatively modest $10.5 million, set last year when Phillips sold her painting Untitled (Nets) from 1959.
Kusama artworks also sold solidly, but not spectacularly, at auction this week in New York. Christie’s sold one of her Pumpkin paintings from 1993 for $4.9 million, within the $4 million to $6 million estimate. Phillips also sold two of her early soft sculptures, Red Stripes and Blue Spots, both from 1965, both appearing at auction for the first time, and both estimated to fetch $2.5 million to $3.5 million. They sold to the same buyer for $2.7 million and $3.2 million respectively.
Then there’s Cecily Brown, who currently has a major career survey of her work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibition Cecily Brown: Death and the Maid. At the cheaper end of her market, some of Brown’s limited edition prints sell for a few hundred dollars and her current auction record is only $6.8 million, set when her painting Suddenly Last Summer sold at Sotheby's New York in 2018.
This week, two of Brown’s works that were auctioned got close to, but did not actually beat, this record. Sotheby’s sold Brown’s Free Games for May for $6.7 million, above the estimate of $3 million to $5 million, after five different bidders competed for the painting, while Christie’s sold Brown’s Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned), also for $6.7 million, within the estimated range of $5 million to $7 million.
Cecily Brown’s Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned). Image credit: Christie’s
Tracking the top traded women artists
Price is obviously not the only marker of success in the notoriously subjective and fickle art market, where price and value are often misaligned. As I’ve written before, the art market is so illiquid that how often an artist’s work appears at auction is often a better indicator of future financial performance.
Acknowledging this, Art Market Research, a long standing publisher of art market indices, has just launched its All Art Top Traded index, which tracks artists that have sold at auction at least 30 times in the last 24 months, and omits works by artists that are resold so infrequently that they sell for extraordinary prices.
But even by this measure, one of the top traded of all male or female artists at auction is Kusama. Some 2,818 of her artworks sold at auction between 2012 and 2022, which also put her at the top of the list of women artists by number of works sold in that decade, according to Artsy data.
The bright spots
The good news is that collectors are more focused on buying the art of women artists than ever before, just as museums are focused on changing the gender balance of their collections.
In Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale, in which Brown’s Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) and Kusama’s Pumpkin were the second and third most expensive lots respectively, the majority of the lots were by women artists and five new auction records were set for women artists during the sale. These included records for Danielle McKinney and Rebecca Ackroyd, two artists making their auction debut, and a collection of photographs from legendary photographer, Diane Arbus.
It also included a new auction record for Venice Biennale Gold Lion winner, Simone Leigh, for her bronze figure Stick, which sold for $2.7 million, a record that was broken just four nights later when Leigh’s Las Meninas II sculpture sold at Sotheby’s for $3 million.
Speaking after Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale, Guillaume Cerutti, Christie's CEO, said on Bloomberg TV that although the art market has been dominated by male artists for a long time, women artists are finally catching up. But when you consider that the 14 lots in the Christie’s sale by women artists sold for a combined $21 million, while the top lot, Basquiat’s El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile), sold for $67 million, it’s clear that there’s much more catching up to be done.
The bottom line: there’s no doubt that many of the world’s most acclaimed, exhibited and popular women artists are still extremely undervalued in the auction market when compared to their male peers.
And nearly a decade after the sale of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed, we’re still waiting for a new auction record for a woman artist.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, or on any other topic that you’d like this newsletter to cover in the future. You can always email me at email@example.com. I’d also love it if you could subscribe, if you haven’t already, and share this with others. This newsletter is free, but if you’d like to make a small donation to support my work, I’d be very grateful, and you can do so through buymeacoffee.com. Just click on the button below. Thank you so much, and thank you for reading!
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my top art investment news picks of the last quarter. Until next time!
News in brief
As I wrote in last August’s newsletter, corrections to the art market tend to lag other markets. The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market report, published in April, found that the art market continued to grow in 2022, but more slowly than in 2021. Global art sales increased 3% year on year to an estimated $67.8 billion, while the volume of global sales increased 1%. As noted above, art sales this auction season are slowing further still.
The Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2023 found that online art sales also grew 6% to an estimated $10.8 billion in 2022, but more slowly than the previous year. The report also found that 30% of buyers said they will cut back on art purchases over the coming year.
Artnews looked at the struggles currently faced by some of the fractional art investment companies that I wrote about last year. It included this quote from Sotheby’s European chairman Oliver Barker, speaking on a Bloomberg panel in March about art as an alternative asset: “I haven’t yet seen one painting that’s been sold privately since acquisition by a fund like that for a major profit.”