Male artists have dominated auction results for as long as auctions have existed, but according to a new report, women are winning out in the field in at least one respect.
Over the past six years, works by women artists that have returned to auction have seen price gains of about 72.9 percent on average, compared with just 8.3 percent for works by men. The figures come from the team behind Sotheby’s Mei Moses Indices, which tracks the auction world through repeat sales.
Of course, it’s worth emphasizing that we are merely talking percentages here. Because men make up a much larger percentage of the market, and because their art generally trades for higher prices, more money was spent—and made—by the work of men on the auction block during the studied period.
The numbers of objects analyzed were wildly different based on gender. Over the six-year period highlighted (between 2012 and 2018), there were about 2,500 repeat sales of works by some 500 female artists; in the same stretch, there were around 55,700 repeat sales by lots from 8,500 male artists. (Mei Moses has started following market performance based on gender in separate All Art-Female and All Art-Male indices)
Michael Klein, who runs Mei Moses for Sotheby’s, said in a phone interview, of the larger returns for material by women artists, that “a lot of it is tied to people understanding what makes the work great.” The analysis comes as work by women artists is receiving newfound attention by museums and the market after long being marginalized by many historians, curators, dealers, and auctioneers, and a general consensus that it remains deeply undervalued compared to their male peers.
Interestingly, the study showed that, between 1998 and 2012, work by men and women performed roughly equally, the latter breaking away only six years ago.
The Sotheby’s report, published by In Other Words and Art Agency, Partners, highlights the markets of a number of artists, including Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lee Krasner, Abstract Expressionist painters whose work has performed well at auction of late. Krasner recently doubled her auction record at Sotheby’s this past May, with her 1960 painting The Eye is the First Circle selling for $11.7 million to collectors Emily and Mitchell Rales, who run the Glenstone museum in Potomac, Maryland.
The outsize returns for women artists also speak to the fact that, since the top prices of work by male artists, such as Ab-Exers Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, are still dramatically above those of their female counterparts, and since much of their most-prized work is now ensconced in museums, there is frankly more room for the prices of women artists to grow, both in terms of raw dollars and percentages.
And to be sure, male artists’ grip on the market is still firm. A recent study published by Art Basel and UBS said that work by men represents more than 90 percent of total volume in the market each year and about 93 percent of total market value.
Nevertheless, the report represents a promising data point. As Klein put it, “The value of art is changing. The value of female art is changing even more.”