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The most successful women artists of the market

[25 Apr 2017]

Women artists are starting to emerge in a world dominated by male artists for centuries. A number of recent auction results confirm this trend.

Women’s relative under-representation and under-valuation in the art market has been the subject of a recurrent public debate for at least 30 years. In 1985 a group of New York-based radical feminist artists called the Guerrilla Girls denounced the blatant domination of male artists in major museums. Their slogan at the time, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”, was highly pertinent: women appear in museums far more as nude subjects for male artists than as artists themselves. Under-represented in cultural institutions, they were (and still are) under-represented from a commercial point of view, leading to a very significant valuation gap and to a generalised price shortfall compared with male artists.

Although women still represent a much smaller proportion of the artists on the high-end art market, the top female artists nevertheless receive better market support nowadays than in the past. The Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot holds a better auction record than her male Impressionist counterpart Alfred Sisley (Morisot’s Après le déjeuner fetched $10.9 million at Christie’s London on 6 February 2013 compared with Sisley’s record of $9 million for Effet de neige à Louveciennes). Frida Kahlo represents another positive example: in the mid-1990s, her best works sold at the same price levels as her husband Diego Rivera’s, but today her work is worth much more and her auction record stands at nearly three times that of her former partner ($8 million in May 2016 for Dos desnudos en el bosque, a small canvas just 25cm tall). A third example is the sharp revaluation of Gabriele Munter whose Fuchsia in front of a Moonlit Landscape (1928) rose from about $22,000 to $423,300 in just thirty years (sold on 24 June 1986 at Christie’s London, then resold on 25 June 2015 at Sotheby’s London). Although the auction record of this great German Expressionist represents just one sixth of that recorded for August Macke, a 1,767% increase over 29 years shows that some women are enjoying substantial market uplift. The recent performances of artists like Rosemarie Trockel, Helen Frankenthaler, Barbara Hepworth and Nathalie Gontcharova confirm this trend. The market is therefore waking up to female artists, particularly from the late 19th century and early 20th century. But this awaking has only really been apparent since works by male Impressionist, Expressionist and Surrealist artists became extremely are on the market … and extremely expensive.

Today, the celebrity of remarkable artists like Niki de Saint Phalle, Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman, Annette Messager, Tracey Emin, Nan Goldin, Marlene Dumas or Bridget Riley is somewhat reassuring, especially as their work also receives a lot of secondary market attention. Some female artists have generated auction results as good as the top male artists: Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman are among the few Contemporary artists to have crossed the million-dollar threshold. And the market has also shown considerable interest for certain lesser-known artists like Jacqueline Humphries, an American who caught the market’s attention after New York’s Whitney Museum began to show interest in her abstract paintings. Before the Whitney, her best works fetched less than $20,000 at public sales. After the Whitney, they began to sell above $60,000 and she now has a record of $100,000 for her canvas 95% (Phillips, 15 May 2015), a painting that was originally acquired for just $1,200 in 1994.

That kind of increase is rare for living female artists. Another – even stronger – has been the revaluation of her compatriot Elaine Sturtevant. Prefiguring a certain form of Appropriationism, Sturtevant managed to ‘discover’ a number of major artists by literally copying their works, in most cases, well ahead of the market’s interest in their work. Her carefully inexact copies included works by Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, and Anselm Kiefer. On 2 December 2014, the Parisian auctioneer, Artcurial, offered her emblematic Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe (1967). Originally acquired for $3,000 in 1999 (at Binoche, Paris), the collector decided to sell it 15 years later. Estimated at just under $150,000, the bidding climbed to nearly $412,000 equivalent to a gain of almost 13,000% in 25 years. A record for Sturtevant in France, that result came just a few months after her death and the market always tends to tighten sharply after the demise of an iconic artist, especially if that artist sells well in the United States. So, as expected, Sturtevant’s prices soared in 2014-2015 before deflating somewhat over the following two years. However, we would not be surprised to see a resurgence in demand for work by this visionary artist who was awarded a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2011.

Recognition by museums like the Whitney or winning an important award like a Golden Lion in Venice are vital steps in an artist’s careers… and are perhaps even more important for women artists. It is certainly no coincidence that this year’s Golden Lion Award For Lifetime Achievement was awarded to Carolee Schneeman, a pioneer of feminist performance art, at a time when questions of gender equity and equality have regained a much more central position in public debates.

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