On February 6, Berthe Morisot’s 1881 painting Après le déjeuner sold for US$10.9 million at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale, with the final bid reaching US$7 million above the presale high estimate. This sale set a new record for the highest price paid for a work by a female artist at auction, edging past the 2008 record held by Natalia Goncharova’s Les Fleurs for US$10.8 million. Over the past few years, increasingly high prices and returns at auction have been achieved by female artists, moving many of these artists into the spotlight as “top artists” and away from the confines of the “top female artists” list. With many of these sales by female artists consistently making headlines, journalists are once again grappling with how to assess the performance of female artists, especially as many of their male counterparts have struggled to regain pre-recession performance.
Above: Damien Hirst (British, b.1965), Jeff Koons (American, b.1955), and Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, b.1929) were among the top 25 living artists by total sales volume at auction in 2007. Both Koons and Hirst have struggled to reach pre-crash levels, while Kusama’s index quickly rebounded, surpassing the previous 2007 high.
In 2009, Jerry Saltz considered the two schools of thought regarding the success of female artists in less than stellar economic conditions: “one argument goes that recessions are good for female artists because when money flies out the window, women are allowed in the house. The other claims that when money ebbs, so do prospects for women.” Saltz concluded that given the increase in the number of female gallery shows in 2009 compared to previous years, female artists benefited from the recession through increased gallery exposure. While this may have held true in the primary market, the status of female artists in the secondary market is more difficult to define, in part because the group of female artists as a whole is not uniform; Modern, Impressionist, and Contemporary artists’ markets are all affected independently by the performance of their sector.
Above: Although many artists did experience a significant drop in total sales volume in 2009, as the overall art market responded to global financial crisis, many female artists were able to quickly rebound, as the Post-War and Contemporary market saw consistent growth in the past two years.
In addition to the inherent problem in grouping the success of all female artists together, regardless of stylistic and media differences, there is also a tendency to immediately look at the top end of the auction market. No female artists have made it onto the list of the top 100 most expensive sold at auction, and even if you expand this to look at the top 1,000 prices achieved at auction, you have to scroll down to the 678th highest price achieved to find a work by a female artist. When people see the lack of female artists on this list, they seem to naturally come to ask: “Where are all the women?” Jerry Saltz very famously posed this question in a 2007 article for the New York Times; since then, several articles a year come out rephrasing the question.
In order to answer this question and attempt to assess the overall performance of women artists, it is important to break this question down further, looking at the specific performance of female artists within a group of their comparable peers. In taking this first step, you eliminate some of the inherent bias in every broad list of top lots or top artists; to even get onto the list of the top 100 most expensive works of art ever sold, a work has to be commanding prices in the US$35 million range—it should come as no surprise that within these top 100, 15 works are Picassos and only two works sold were sold by living artists. In 2012, only 3% of the lots that sold over US$1 million at auction were by female artists, and among the top 500 artists sold by value last year, only 19 were women. Once again, the question remains: where are the women at the high end of the market?
There is recent evidence to suggest that this gap is lessening, especially among living artists. Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman (American, b.1954), and Marlene Dumas (South African, b.1953) are all included in the top 50 living artists by value sold at auction, competing with male artists such as Gerhard Richter (German, b.1932), Damien Hirst (British, b.1965), and Takashi Murakami (Japanese, b.1962).
Above: In the past 10 years, Kusama has earned higher returns than Richter at auction, and both artists have outperformed the S&P 500 and the artnet Contemporary 50™. Richter is currently the top-selling living artist of all time.
Kusama is the top-selling living female artist by both volume and value; she is one of the only living artists that can rival the level of consistent success and actually surpass returns achieved at auction by Richter over the past decade. Since 2002, Kusama’s average sale price has remained above the pre-sale high estimates, and her works have averaged a 700% return. In November 2008, the artist’s record was set with the sale of No. 2 at Christie’s New York for US$5.8 million, which was more than US$2 million over the pre-sale high estimate. The work, part of her Infinity Nets series, pushed her into the top 15 most expensive female artists sold at auction, among the ranks of Joan Mitchell (American, 1925–1992), Louise Bourgeois (American/French, 1911–2010), Cady Noland (American, b.1956), and Natalia Goncharova. In 2012, Kusama’s total sales at auction reached just shy of US$25 million. To put this figure in perspective, Kusama sold more last year than Yoshitomo Nara (Japanese, b.1959), Maurizio Cattelan (Italian, b.1960), and Keith Haring (American, 1958–1990) combined.
Cindy Sherman is another Contemporary female artist who has successfully moved up in rank over the past five years, ranking 24th among living artists in 2012 and outselling the world’s top-ranked photographer, Andreas Gursky (German, b.1955). Boosted by an unprecedented 91% sell-through rate in 2012, Sherman has had a great deal of success in the past two years within the Contemporary photography market, consistently outperforming male contemporaries like William Eggleston (American, b.1939), Jeff Wall (Canadian, b.1946), Vik Muniz (Brazilian, b.1961), and Thomas Ruff (German, b.1958). Sherman currently holds four spots on the list of the top 15 prices ever achieved by a photograph at auction, and is one of only 20 photographers to sell a work for over US$1 million.
By analyzing the performance of female artists against their contemporaries and direct market competitors, the numbers seem to stack much more in their favor, as proven by Beatriz Milhazes, Marlene Dumas, Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman, and Bridget Riley.
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