Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, sold for $44.4 million in November 2014, smashing Sotheby’s $15 million top estimate for the masterpiece, as well as the previous high reached for a work by a female artist: $12 million for Joan Mitchell’s Untitled, 1960, achieved at a Christie’s auction in May that year.
No doubt, $44.4 million for a work as instantly recognizable as an O’Keeffe makes sense, especially in a world where pieces of art regularly sell for upward of $50 million. But why is the highest price paid at public auction for a work by a female artist only a quarter of the $179.4 million price paid for Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), 1955, a postwar work by Pablo Picasso, her male contemporary?
By some counts, there are more than two dozen works by men that have sold for more than $100 million in private transactions and at auction, including the extraordinary $450.3 million paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s last fall.
The reason for the wide gap between works by men and women has been deliberated since at least 1971, when art historian Linda Nochlin wrote her seminal essay for ArtNews, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin’s piece tears into the concept of male “genius” and demonstrates how bias in “our institutions and our education” had for decades opened doors for men to be artists, allowing only the most determined women—or those with artist husbands or fathers sympathetic to their talents—to squeak through.
There’s lots of evidence in the marketplace that a reassessment is afoot, especially for artists like O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, and Mitchell, as well as many others with deep bodies of work. It’s almost as if collectors are saying, “How did we miss this treasure in front of our nose?” says Mera Rubell, a collector in Miami who, with her husband, Don, has long championed women’s art.
Yet in many ways, Nochlin’s essay remains relevant. A January report by Artnet Worldwide and Maastricht University finds that even prices of art by “superstars,” including Cindy Sherman, Barbara Hepworth, and Agnes Martin, trade at a discount of 9% at the top 0.1% of the market, and simply don’t exist in the top 0.03% of the market, “where 41% of the revenues are concentrated.” Mitchell’s collective abstract expressionist art sales at auction totalled $390 million at the end of 2017, the highest of all female artists, yet she is ranked only 47th among all top artists at auction from 2000 to 2017, the report says.
But can the gap narrow? To Fabian Bocart, artnet’s chief operating officer, and the report’s co-author, the answer is yes—for works by artists with a substantive body of work and a strong track record. For collectors with an eye on investment value, “it’s a good opportunity to capitalize on the spread between male and female artists,” Bocart says.
The divide is evident for artists across the ages. While Berthe Morisot’s impressionist paintings may evoke pieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the highest auction price for one of hers is $10.9 million, realized for Après le Déjeuner, 1881, at a Christie’s London auction in 2013. Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette, 1876, sold at Sotheby’s in May 1990 for $78.1 million, according to artnet.
Much later, the abstract expressionist Lee Krasner’s Shattered Light, 1954, sold for an impressive $5.5 million in November 2017 at Christie’s in New York. The auction record for a work by her husband, Jackson Pollock, as of press time, is $58.4 million for Number 19, sold in May 2013 at Christie’s.
This pattern repeats to the present. Suddenly Last Summer, 1999, a painting by Cecily Brown, a British abstract painter who moved to New York in the 1990s, sold for $6.8 million, more than double her prior record, at a Sotheby’s auction in New York in May, while Christie’s sold Nice ’n Easy, 1999, by her contemporary, American artist John Currin, for $12 million in November 2016, artnet data show.
For collectors in search of bargains, these almost absurd price gulfs present an opportunity.
“People, in general, are looking for good art that is undervalued,” says Suzanne Gyorgy, global head of art advisory and finance at Citi Private Bank. “Within that, there are collectors looking at women.”
Gyorgy was in the auction room during Sotheby’s evening contemporary-art sale in New York last November when bidding took off for Laura Owens’ Untitled, 2012. The painting was expected to sell for $300,000, at most, but Gyorgy recalls the bidding quickly intensified, with a man next to her shouting out “$800,000!” The final price: $1.7 million, eclipsing Owens’ previous auction record of $360,500 for Untitled, 2006, in 2016.
The frenzied bidding for Owens’ painting represents a “tipping point” of change, Gyorgy says.
That artwork by Owens, a Los Angeles artist born in 1970, achieved its record high during the first week of a 20-year survey of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art—evidence, perhaps, of the role that museums, as well as galleries, play in raising the profile of female artists in the minds of collectors and investors.
Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf says he didn’t select Owens because she is a woman, it’s interesting, though, that the retrospective was followed by exhibitions of two more female artists: first, a mid-career survey of New York photographer and sculptor Zoe Leonard, born in 1961, and second, the first solo survey of the work of Mary Corse, a California painter born in 1945, and one of few women who were part of the West Coast’s “light and space” movement.
The museum has worked in the past 10 years or so “to showcase the efforts of women more and more, moving closer to gender parity,” says Rothkopf, who is also deputy director of programs.
Other major institutions also are making strides in correcting decades of neglect and elevating works by women, including the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., under director Melissa Chiu; the Museum of Modern Art in New York, through its Modern Women’s Fund; the Brooklyn Museum via the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art; and the Tate Modern in London, under director Frances Morris.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts pushes the need for change through an annual social-media campaign called #5WomenArtists, challenging individuals and cultural institutions to name five female artists. The point is to raise awareness of persistent gender inequity in the art world, from the lack of women in leadership roles at most major museums to the relative dearth of exhibitions by female artists.
“People in the art world want to think we are achieving parity more quickly than we are,” says Susan Fisher Sterling, the museum’s director.
Leonard made this point in her show at The Whitney by printing excerpts of Nochlin’s essay on the museum walls so they could be viewed by staff as well as patrons, says Elisabeth Sherman, assistant curator. The idea was conceived in the aftermath of a flurry of sexual-harassment allegations against powerful men and Nochlin’s death on Oct. 29, 2017. After that, Leonard reread Nochlin’s essay and was “struck by how relevant it remains,” Sherman says.
Exhibitions like Leonard’s may move the needle toward change, but evolution may not happen until collectors start demanding it through what they ask to see at galleries and buy at auction.
At the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, N.Y., Valeria Napoleone, a British collector of women’s art, has been backing a program since 2015 to regularly commission a video work by a female artist. It’s part of a platform to make people “think about representation of women in exhibition spaces and museums.” Anthea Hamilton, the first artist Napoleone supported, was later nominated for a Turner Prize, and then awarded a Tate Britain commission.
Marta Gnyp, an art adviser in Berlin and author of The Shift: Art and the Rise to Power of Contemporary Collectors, is encouraging the conversation on a different level, by introducing collectors to the work of established artists whose art wasn’t recognized in the past.
Theirs are works that will continue to develop from an art-historical viewpoint, but also from a financial viewpoint, Gnyp says.“We can’t change the history,” she says. “What we can do is revalue certain artists.”