Among Works Most in Demand at Auction, Women Artists Were Well-Represented but Still Lag in Market Share: Analysis

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BY ANGELICA VILLAPlus Icon

September 8, 2021 12:45pm

Joan Mitchell, Untitled
Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1977.CHRISTIE’S

Work by women artists has never been more visible in the art market than it is today, but that doesn’t mean women artists are anywhere near achieving their rightful place. At major auctions that took place in New York, London, and Paris between the spring and summer months, only one female painter was among the top blue-chip artists whose work was offered for sale, though women made up 18 percent of the total number of artists represented. Among the lots with the most active and aggressive bidding, women artists were better represented at 34 percent of the total. That’s encouraging, but still nowhere near parity.

An analysis of data across 14 modern and contemporary art sales that took place at the three major houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips—between New York, London, and Paris from April through July shows the dynamics between male and female artists remains largely unbalanced. Male artists maintained the largest market share in those auctions. Of the 100 top-grossing artists sold in the day and evening sales, 14 were women. Overall, out of the 800 artists represented in these series of sales, 141 of those were women. That means women artists made up 14 percent of the upper end of the market, but 17.6 percent of the broader market. Those positive signs were blunted by the fact that women artists’ work accounts for just 8 percent of the $1.8 billion in total sales, generating a collective $138.6 million.

A deeper look into the market share data shows that Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell, who is the subject of a widely anticipated retrospective that opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art this month, dominates among women artists. She is among the only women artist whose auction turnover rivals her male compatriots. But her sale totals are a far cry from the market leaders like Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who brought in $187 million from 25 lots and $171 million from 12 lots, respectively, in the same sales. This season, Mitchell’s total turnover was $33.5 million, made across 7 lots offered across evening and day sales.

Among all artists whose works sold between those sales from April to July, Mitchell had the 13th highest market share, meaning work by 12 male artists outranked hers in terms of total sale volume. (The next woman, at rank 44, is Vija Celmins with a total turnover of $7.7 million across 1 lot.) All but one of Mitchell’s works sold at hammer prices within their estimates. The most expensive was an untitled diptych oil on canvas from 1977 depicting one of Mitchell’s recurring motifs—the Linden tree at her Vétheuil estate in the South of France. Paintings that depict the tree are among her most valuable. This one hammered for $10.5 million ($12.4 with premium), just above the low estimate of $10 million. The most expensive lot this season was Picasso’s Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), from 1932, which hammered for $90 million ($103 million with premium).

In comparison to her male counterparts from the postwar era who achieved similar shares, Mitchell’s market also still lags behind. Clifford Still and Richard Diebenkorn were number 15 and 16 in the market share ranks. One of Still’s works sold for $30.4 million and two by Diebenkorn sold for a combined $31 million. This means that her average $4.8 million lot price is well below the averages for Still ($30 million) and Diebenkorn  ($15.5 million) this season. On the other hand, Mitchell’s auction turnover far exceeds her female peers. With a turnover of $33.5 million, Mitchell’s is roughly four times the respective totals achieved by the next tier of top selling women artists: Celmins, Barbara Hepworth, and Lee Krasner. Each artist’s total for this season hovers between $7.2 million and $7.7 million.

At Christie’s, Lee Krasner’s untitled mauve and yellow abstract canvas sold for $7.2 million, hammering at $6 million, in the middle of it’s pre-sale estimate during an evening sale in May. In the early 1960s, Krasner was at her zenith, when she produced her series, “Night Journeys,” following the death of her husband, Jackson Pollock. The seller of the 1962 painting purchased it back in 2005 at Christie’s for $968,000, where it was estimated at $500,000-$700,000. Two of Barbara Hepworth’s cast bronze sculptures Parent II (1971) and Maquette Three Forms in Echelon (1961) sold for a collective $7.3 million, while Vija Celmin’s painting Untitled (Ocean), from 1987-1988, is what sold for $7.7 million.

Alice Neel, Henry and Sally
Alice NeelHenry and Sally, 1966.SOTHEBY’S

The fifth top-grossing woman artist of the group is Yayoi Kusama. Out of the total number of artists, her auction turnover was $7.1 million made across 5 lots. Kusama’s total is the 47th highest out of all artists this season. Louise Bourgeois, Dana Schutz, and Elizabeth Peyton followed with market shares between $4.4 million and $4.7 million. Next were Alice Neel, Avery Singer, Bridget Riley, and Agnes Martin with auction turnovers between $4.4 million and $4.2 million.

The market is now catching up to Neel, a long-established figurative painter, whose works rarely come to auction. Known for her gritty portraiture of her friends and neighbors in Upper Manhattan, she was among the newcomers to the top of the market share charts this season. On the heels of a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest showcase of Neel’s work to come to New York, two of her paintings outpaced expectations. A still life titled Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room (1966) and Henry and Sally Hope (1977), a double portrait, sold for a collective $4.6 million. Each hammered at prices well above their high estimates, and the former set a new record for the postwar artist. Her previous record was last set in 2009 when the Cleveland Museum of Art bought her double portrait Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd (1970) for $1.56 million at Sotheby’s. The acquisition was an effort to bolster their holding of works by overlooked women artists.

Unlike their postwar peers, works by mid-career women contemporary painters were bid up past their expectations. Among the top were Mickalene Thomas and Amy Sherald. All five of Mickalene Thomas’s works sold above their estimates, together generating $4.7 million. The top seller was her 2011 painting Portrait of Jessica, which hammered at $1.25 million, six times the low estimate of $200,000 during a Phillips evening sale. As for Sherald, her auto-biographical painting It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind (2011) was sold by a Baltimore-based collector for $3.5 million with premium, five times the $500,000 estimate. They’re figures are still behind male artists in their generation—below Mark Bradford’s $10 million made across 3 lots and Kerry James Marshall’s $8 million across 2 lots total this season.

Work by emerging women artists popular on the primary market continued to be among the most in-demand lots. Flora Yukhnovich, Emily Mae Smith, Hilary Pecis, Elizabeth Swordy, Jadé Fadojutimi, and Cristina de Miguel were among the artists whose works were bid up the furthest past their estimates. Of the top 50 most in-demand lots (or works bid up the furthest past their estimates percentage-wise) across all 14 sales, 34 percent were by women artists.

Hilary Pecis, a California-based painter whose pop-style still lifes have been compared to those by David Hockney is gaining swift attention. Her landscape painting Backyard View (2018), depicting a sunset and palm trees, sold at Sotheby’s in a contemporary art day sale for £340,000 ($470,219), 17 times the low estimate of £20,000 ($27,600). Fadojutimi, the youngest artist to ever enter the Tate’s permanent collection at age 27, saw her art achieve a new auction record, when Phillips in Hong Kong sold her frenetic abstract painting Untitled (2018) for $390,600, 6 times the low estimate of $60,000 at Phillips.

While auction houses have made moves to give greater visibility to female artists in the last year—the sale results indicate that the gender gap remains deeply entrenched. Between long established postwar figures to today’s most in-demand artists wide disparities are still intact.

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