State of the Art Market: Surrealist Women Awakening

An analysis of the auction market’s resurgent interest in Surrealist artists.

With most historical art movements, we find that there are scores of women whose influence and work have been overlooked or at the least undervalued for their contributions to the canon. The Surrealist movement is such an example, which has largely been defined by iconic male artists like Dali, Magritte and Miro.

More recently, exhibitions, books and articles have done the work of reviving the woman Surrealist and reviewing the narrative that allowed her erasure. Yet, as art history is reconsidered—even revised—does the art market reflect this new critical valuation? And if so, how long does it take to catch up?

Using auction data, we have set out to answer these questions by analyzing auction prices, but more importantly sell-through rates (lots sold against lots offered, minus withdrawals), which acutely reflect demand in a segment of the market where prices could be considered depressed.  While the data for male and female Surrealists over time cannot offer firm conclusions or predictions, it may present a fuller view of how this more recent and much talked-about category is developing from a market perspective.

(Methodology: Morgan Stanley collaborated with Artnet News using the Artnet Price Database to analyze the fine art market for Surrealist works sold at auction from 2013 through October 20, 2023, as illustrated in the charts herein. All price data is drawn from the Artnet Price Database and includes the buyer’s premium unless otherwise expressly noted. The Database includes only lots with a minimum estimate of 500 USD (for original paintings, sculptures, works on paper, photographs, prints and multiples, and installations with an identified artist). Unlike with other categories in fine art, Surrealism is a more loosely defined genre, with many artists across continents thought to sometimes participate in the movement. Defining Surrealism as spanning from circa 1917 to 1966 and encompassing the work of approximately 200 artists, Artnet created a data set utilizing publicly available information and Artnet’s own historical research. For the avoidance of doubt, Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti have been excluded.)

Previously: From Muse to Artist

Surrealism was codified and brought to life by Andre Breton in his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” which outlined the movement’s commitment to translating the true nature of the unconscious.[1] The manifesto reflects Breton’s fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis and Breton’s belief that it was perhaps a solution to man’s disillusionment with his life. According to the manifesto, the woman’s role was that of the muse, la femme-enfant, who acts as a talisman of the unconscious. Freud’s and thereby Breton’s worldview associated women with pure emotion, not logic.

It’s a classic story. Leonora Carrington, now recognized by many as a vital figure of the 1930s Surrealist movement, was generally thought of as not much more than pioneering artist Max Ernst’s muse in the years they shared together as husband and wife. He moves on, her contribution to art ends, or so the thinking went. But as has since become clear, Carrington, along with fellow Surrealists Remedios Varo, Kati Horna and Bridget Bate Tichenor, fled Europe for Mexico City and found there not just haven from World War II but a new landscape in which they could practice their art outside the male-dominated European Surrealism.  As Carrington herself put it, “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse.  I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”[2] And as Carrington’s cousin described in an article for the Guardian, European women in Mexico found freedom from this circumscribed identity, as they didn’t have to bend to the gendered expectations of the time being both foreign and of some means.[3] At the same time, Mexico was widely considered a hotbed of Surrealist activity, with the iconic Frida Kahlo—the most successful woman Surrealist in terms of auction results—at its center.

Of course, women Surrealists were active in the United States as well, many of whom were similarly sheltered from the ravages of the World Wars in Europe. Artists such as Lee Miller and Kay Sage were influenced by Surrealists during their travels to Paris before bringing the movement stateside. But artists didn’t have to go to Paris to catch the influence. The Surrealist Gertrude Abercrombie, for example, became exposed to the movement through the avant-garde circles she moved in in 1930s Chicago.[4]

Recently: Exhibitions and Market Activity Shine New Light 

In recent years, a proliferation of major exhibitions has put women Surrealists front and center and has found massive popular response. Examples include the 2020 “Women, Surrealism, and Abstraction” at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art;[5] the 2022 post-pandemic “Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition” at the MoMA,[6] the 2022 “Surrealism Beyond Borders” at the Met,[7] which later traveled to the Tate Modern; the 2022 “Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity” at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice;[8] and the 2023 “Remedios Varo: Science Fictions” at the Art Institute of Chicago.[9]

Yet, the rediscovery of women Surrealists goes back to the 2010s, with the landmark 2012 show at LACMA “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.”[10]  Additionally, in 2015, the Bronx Botanical Garden staged the wildly popular “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life” exhibit.[11]  It’s also worth noting that MoMA’s redesign, completed in 2019, saw the inclusion of far more women Surrealists in its permanent collection.[12] That same year, crowds flocked to a retrospective on Dorothea Tanning at the Tate Modern.[13]

What effects have these attempts to reframe women Surrealists had on their secondary-market performance?

The market has also been instrumental to this story’s unfolding.  In 2012, Dorothea Tanning’s Le Miroir (1950) sold at Christie’s for £217,250, a record for the artist at the time.[14]  Then, in 2014, Kay Sage’s Le Passage (1956) sold for $7 million at a Sotheby’s auction, more than 23 times her previous auction record.[15]  Sotheby’s seemed to respond to this interest by mounting the selling exhibition “Cherchez la femme: Women and Surrealism” in 2015.[16]

Though markets stutter and peak, based on what we discovered it seems clear that interest in women Surrealists has been steadily increasing over the years. In 2013, the average sale price of a work by a woman Surrealist was $35,098, compared to the male Surrealist average of $72,273. While the average sale price for male artists has its dips and resurgences, with a low average price of $54,505 in 2016 and a high of $97,972 in 2017, women Surrealists see their more modest average steadily climb over time, with a huge jump in 2021, to $167,263, before settling to $84,339 the next year. Thus far in 2023, while the data period does not include sales in the key November New York auctions, average sale price for women Surrealists is up to $95,376, surpassing the male Surrealist average of $59,183.

Source: Artnet Price Database[17]

Source: Artnet Price Database[18]

With $4.26 billion in sales over the past ten years, the total sales volume for male Surrealists greatly outpaces that for women Surrealists, who brought in $252 million. Yet it looks as though women are accelerating, after surpassing their male counterparts in average price at auction in 2014, then more than doubling their figure by 2021. It was also in 2021 that the first woman artist made it to the top 20 Surrealist lots when Frida Kahlo’s Diego y yo (1949) sold for $34.9 million including premium, marking the third-highest price for a Surrealist piece at auction during the period and the most expensive work ever sold by a Latin American artist.[19] Notably, this high also far surpasses her husband Diego Rivera’s record auction price of $14.13 million, realized in a 2022 Christie’s sale for the piece The Rivals (1931).  To be sure, male Surrealists’ total sales value at auction continues to greatly outpace that of women Surrealists, topping out at $561 million in 2022, while for women the high-water mark was $62.05 million, in 2021.

These auction totals should also be contextualized by the number of lots offered. In the past ten years, male Surrealists have had some 80,864 lots put to auction compared to 3,908 Surrealist lots by women artists over the same time period. With increasing interest in women Surrealists, we may see more work by them come into market circulation, whereas we may assume that, certainly on a relative basis, male Surrealist stock has been fairly well plumbed by now.

Take Gertrude Abercrombie. Her auction results are an illustrative example of the meteoric rise of a woman Surrealist over the last ten years. In 2023, among the bevy of her works that sold at auction were two via Hindman Auctions this spring: Owl and Dominoes—sold for $214,200, or 614% over its high estimate—and Four Trees and Three Owls—which sold for $352,800, or 404% over its high estimate. For comparison, two sales in 2013 that were indicative of where her market then sat include Girl and Cats, sold via Bonhams for $11,875, and Owl and Moon, sold at Hindman for $5,000—both at or below their estimates.  The coup de grâce came last year, when a single-owner, single-artist auction of works by the late Chicago painter scored more the $2.8 million at Hindman. Her record is now held by Untitled (Woman with Tethered Horse and Moon), sold by Hindman in December of that year at its Post-war and Contemporary sale for $437,500. Also notable: her success has come largely at auction houses other than the “big two,” with major strides notched at Hindman and Bonhams.

In an especially encouraging sign, sell-through rates for women Surrealists have grown at a very healthy rate during the period. In 2013, their sell-through rate was 60%; thus far in 2023, it is 82%, marking a 35-percentage-point jump over the past ten years. This is in comparison to the male Surrealist increase in sell-through rates, from 67% in 2013 to 76% today—a rise of 13 percentage points.

Source: Artnet Price Database[20]

For context, the sell-through rates for other genres that do not overlap with Surrealists have not risen to the level of women Surrealists. Old Masters and Ultra-Contemporary, for instance, have at their highest had sell-through rates of 66% and 73% (on an aggregated basis), respectively during the period, though they have marginally higher total sales value.  (Artnet defines the “European Old Master” genre as fine artworks created by European artists born between 1250 and 1820. Lots with an identified artist must carry a minimum estimate of $500, and lots with a modifier—such as “school of,” “circle of,” “follower of”—must carry a minimum estimate of $2,000. Artnet defines the “Ultra-Contemporary” category as fine artworks created by artists born in 1975 or later.)

Looking Ahead: Keeping Our Eyes Peeled

The story of the female Surrealists’ market is still developing, with examples in the Fall 2023 New York auction season including Bonhams’ specialized sale “Surrealism: Beyond Reality” on November 15 with works from major women Surrealists including Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Rachel Baes and Jane Graverol as well as notable male Surrealists including Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and Andre Masson. [21]

Further, the influence of the Surrealist movement, and its women artists, appears far from fading. In fact, as women Surrealists gain more critical and market stature, it seems to be increasingly evident that they have shaped a new generation of Ultra-Contemporary artists. Some of the most sought after Ultra-Contemporary artists—many of them women—have strong aesthetic ties to the Surrealist movement, from Emily Mae-Smith to Julie Curtiss.  These two artists alone have sold a total of $22,797,522 from 2013 to 2023 thus far, with noteworthy average price per auction and sell-through rates of $202,396 and 88%, and $221,278 and 91%, respectively.[22]

Not only may such Surrealist-leaning artists be construed as darlings of the market, they are well represented in some of the most notable shows of the season, and many of the headliners are women: Lucy Bull’s “Venus World” at the Long Museum in Shanghai;[23] Emily Mae-Smith’s “Habitats” at the Pond Society in Shanghai;[24] Issy Wood’s “I Like to Watch” at the Ilmin Museum of Art;[25] Julie Curtiss’s “Bitter Apples” at White Cube;[26] and Ewa Juszkiewicz’s “In a Shady Valley, Near a Running Water” at Gagosian Beverly Hills.[27]

The woman Surrealist has awakened from the dream, and this time we, too, are awake, enjoying her work and closely monitoring its value from the start.

Source: Artnet Price Database[28]

Source: Artnet Price Database[29]

Artnet Price Database: From Michelangelo drawings to Warhol paintings, Le Corbusier chairs to Banksy prints, you will find over 14 million color-illustrated art auction records dating back to 1985. Artnet covers more than 1,800 auction houses and 385,000 artists, and every lot is vetted by Artnet’s team of multilingual specialists. Whether you are appraising a collection, researching an artist’s market history, or pricing an artwork for sale, the Price Database will help you determine the value of art.

Disclosures: This material was published in November 2023 and has been prepared for informational purposes only. The information and data in the material has been obtained from sources outside of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC (“Morgan Stanley”). Morgan Stanley makes no representations or guarantees as to the accuracy or completeness of the information or data from sources outside of Morgan Stanley.

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[17] 2023 data is as of Nov. 14, 2023

[18] 2023 data is as of Nov. 14, 2023


[20] 2023 data is as of Nov. 14, 2023


[22] Artnet Price Database






[28] 2023 data is as of Nov. 14, 2023

[29] 2023 data is as of Nov. 14, 2023

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