What Does Women's Art Make at Auction? More Than You Think and Less Than It Should

Last week, an artwork by Cady Noland set a new world auction record for a living woman artist at auction at $6.6 million, and another artwork, by the late Louise Bourgeois, set a new world auction record for a piece by a woman from the post-war period, at $10.7 million. But the market for art by women still has a ways to go...

As usual, the men stole the show. But the ladies, if not nipping at their heels, are at the very least catching up a bit. Let us explain.

Auction records for a number of artists, living and dead, were set last week at the biannual modern and contemporary evening sales in New York, led by the late abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, whose 1949 painting 1949-A-No.1 sold at Sotheby's for a whopping $61 million. Later that evening, a living artist, Gerhard Richter, also made a world auction record, when his abstract painting, Abstraktes Bild (1997), brought $20.8 million.

These whopping prices threatened to overshadow two other records set that night at Sotheby’s, for women artists, whose art historically sells for far less than the top-selling men. Cady Noland’s art set a world record at auction for any living female artist when her 1989 piece Oozewald sold for $6.6 million. (The previous record for a Noland was $1.8 million; the previous record for a living woman artist at auction was for South African painter Marlene Dumas, whose 1995 painting The Visitor sold for $6.3 million at Sotheby’s, London in July 2008.) And a painting made around 1960 by the late Joan Mitchell sold for $9.3 million, a new record. The previous record for a Mitchell painting at auction was $7 million.

In a way, this was a milestone week for women artists at auction. The night before, at Christie’s, a world auction record was set for the most expensive artwork by a woman artist in the post-war period. Louise Bourgeois’s huge bronze Spider sculpture from 2003 sold for $10.7 million; the artist passed away last year.

The week brought even more records for living women artists.

At the same sale as Bourgeois’s spider, Vija Celmins also saw a record price when a meditative work on paper, Sea Drawing with Whale, was hammered down for $902,500. Her previous record was for Pan, a painting of 1964 , that sold at Sotheby’s New York, in 2005 for $576,000.

Even before Christie’s regular contemporary art sale had begun, records had already been set at the house’s special sale of works from the collection of Peter Norton. Barbara Kruger’s eye-catching 1985 artwork Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook), three gelatin silver prints in artist’s frames, made a record at $902,500. Ms. Kruger’s previous record was the $601,600 made at Phillips de Pury & Co. New York, in 2004, for her iconic piece Untitled (I shop therefore I am), a serigraph on vinyl from 1983. Mona Hatoum’s Silence, a sculpture made of glass in the form of a life-size cradle, made $470,500, blasting past her previous record of $217,000, made at Christie’s New York, in 2007, for the piece Entrails Carpet, a silicone rubber floor sculpture from 1995. Sophie Calle made a new record of $218,500 at the Norton sale for The Sleepers (Les dormeurs), a collection of photographs that documented a performance in which she had people sleep at her home, in 1979. Until that evening, her auction record was just $84,126, for Autobiographical Stories – El rehen (in 2 parts), a photograph and text piece from 1989 that sold at Sotheby’s Paris, in 2006.

And, the week before, at the Impressionist/modern auctions, Tamara de Lempicka made a new record of $8.5 million at Sotheby’s, for Le rêve (Rafaëla sur fond vert), an alluring 1927 painting of a nude coyly covering herself up.

But let’s not get too excited. All of this may seem quite impressive but, as we mentioned earlier, works by top women artists tend to sell for far less at auction than works by top men. How much less? Well, first let’s take a look at a few remarkable prices for pieces by men. In 2010, a Picasso sold for $106.5 million. That same year, a Giacometti sold for $103.9 million; In 2006, a Gustav Klimt sold for $87.9 million; in 1990, a Van Gogh sold for $82.5 million and a Renoir sold for $78.1 million; in 2008, a Monet sold for $80.5 million and a Francis Bacon sold for $86.3 million; in 2007 a Mark Rothko sold for $72.8 million and an Andy Warhol sold for $71.7 million. As for living men, a Lucian Freud sold for $33.6 million in 2008, while he was still alive; that same year, a Jeff Koons went for $25.8 million; the previous year, a Damien Hirst sold for $19.2 million; then there’s that Gerhard Richter that was hammered down last week for $20.8 million.

The world auction record price for a woman, living or dead, at auction? A Natalia Goncharova painting made in 1912, for $10.9 million.

Here, according to the auction price database Artnet, and in no particular order, are a few of the top women in art history and in contemporary art, and their world auction records:

Dead: Agnes Martin ($4.7 million); Sonia Delaunay ($3.9 million); Louise Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun ($792,000); Rosa Bonheur ($492,000); Lee Lozano ($602,500); Artemisia Gentileschi ($658,000); Suzanne Valadon ($218,000); Elizabeth Murray ($132,000); Kathe Kollwitz ($299,000); Alice Neel ($1.65 million); Lee Krasner ($3.17 million); Niki de Saint Phalle ($1.1 million); Sonia Delaunay ($3.9 million); Louise Nevelson ($634,000); Eva Hesse ($4.5 million); Anne Truitt ($54,000); Hannah Hoch ($824,000); Diane Arbus ($553,600); Barbara Hepworth ($2.6 million); Irma Stern ($4.9 million)

Living: Lisa Yuskavage ($1.4 million); Ghada Amer ($226,415); Lynda Benglis ($167,300); Lee Bontecou ($1.9 million); Rosemarie Trockel ($962,500); Nan Goldin ($284,500); Tracey Emin ($247,000); Sue Williams ($96,000); Cindy Sherman ($3.9 million); Julie Mehretu ($2.3 million); Elaine Sturtevant ($710,000); Sherrie Levine ($713,000); Jenny Holzer ($881,000); Jenny Saville ($2.4 million); Rachel Whiteread ($887,305); Kiki Smith ($296,000); Isa Genzken ($314,500); Mary Heilmann ($182,500); Katharina Fritsch ($282,000); Cecily Brown ($1.6 million); Ellen Gallagher ($668,000); Elizabeth Peyton ($856,000); Sarah Lucas ($142,250); Pat Steir ($80,000); Marisol Escobar ($912,000); Bharti Kher ($1.5 million); Beatriz Milhazes ($1.2 million); Dorothea Tanning ($104,000); Helen Frankenthaler ($800,000).

If some of these look especially low, the argument that some artists’ work just doesn’t come up at auction very often is valid; and some of these artists sell for higher privately, through dealers. But it is also true that, very generally speaking, women have tended to produce less work than men, who often have more elaborate studio practices, sometimes, as in the cases of Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst, with legions of assistants. An auction record is the public record of an artist’s market. It is also useful in establishing a solid footing for a secondary market for an artist’s work. It will be meaningful when work by women starts to truly catch up, price-wise, at auction, with work by men.

In the slide show that accompanies this post, we list what we believe to be just about all of the women artists, living and dead, whose world record price at auction is $5 million or more. You may be surprised at what we found. At the end, we give you, for the sake of comparison, top auction results for men, living and dead.

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