Last week, Sotheby’s held its first cross-category sale devoted solely to women artists. Titled “(Women) Artists,” the sale featured works spanning the 17th to the 21st centuries brought a hammer total of or £3.66 million ($5.2 million), or £4.6 million ($6.5 million) with premium, landing well above the £2.6 million ($3.7 million) low estimate. The sale realized an 82 percent sell-through rate across 57 lots.
Emphasizing work by women artist has been a new area of focus for auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which have set seven-figure records for artists like Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner in marquee evening sales. “(Women) Artists” featured works offered at lower values associated more commonly with day sales, and based on the results, it was possible that the gender-siloed approach stymied competitive bidding for artists that would have generated attention in an evening sale setting.
Thirty-seven percent of the lots sold above their high estimates, though 41 percent sold for prices within their estimate ranges and 22 percent came in under their low estimates or failed to find buyers. Considering that day sales often feature conservative prices, most works at them sell above the high estimate. Looked at this way, “(Women) Artists” wasn’t a runaway success.
Among the most successful lots was centenarian French painter Françoise Gilot’s Paloma à la Guitare (1965), a blue-toned portrait of the artist’s daughter, one of two children she had with Pablo Picasso. It sold for £922,500 ($1.3 million), 7 times its high £120,000 estimate, the result eclipsed Gilot’s previous record price of $695,000, paid for Étude bleue, a 1953 portrait of a seated woman, during a Sotheby’s New York Impressionist and modern art day sale in 2014.
Prices have been rising steadily for the artist as critics and historians have gone to great lengths to consider her as more than just a muse to Picasso. Still, Picasso’s image of her sold for much more than the sum paid for Paloma à la Guitare. A rare portrait of Gilot by the Spanish painter starred in Sotheby’s New York evening sale in May, selling for $20.9 million with premium, against an estimate of $14 million.
“It isn’t commonly known that Gilot’s commitment to art was present long before her relationship with Pablo Picasso, and she was sadly often left in his shadow,” Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and modern art online sale, Lisa Stevenson, told ARTnews.
Another top seller in “(Women) Artists” was Cecily Brown’s Twice Told Tales II (1998), which surpassed its low estimate of £400,000 and realized £620,000 ($875,000). That’s a relatively modest value for Brown, who is a staple in New York and Hong Kong evening sales and whose auction record stands at $6.7 million. Ironically, Brown was one of the few female painters German artist George Baselitz identified as passing the market’s “value” test in a 2013 interview with Der Spiegel that was decried for its sexist overtones.
Dorothea Tanning’s collaged watercolor Sailor (1988) was sold by an American collector for £20,160 ($28,543), more than three times its £6,000 ($8,500) low estimate and four times the $5,000 price for which the seller purchased it back in 2016 at Bonhams. Another by Tanning, titled The Witch (1950), carried the sale’s highest pre-sale estimate, £220,000–£320,000, and hammered at £260,000 ($368,000).Tanning was long overshadowed by her husband, the Surrealist Max Ernst, and these prices suggest there is growing interest in her art. But they are still far lower lower than her record price of $1.2 million, paid for her painting The Temptation of St. Anthony (1945–46) in May 2018 during a Christie’s Impressionist and modern art day sale.
Seven prints by Cuban-American conceptual artist Ana Mendieta from her 1972 series “Facial Hair Transplants” were sold as one lot. They hammered at £30,000 ($42,700), meeting pre-sale expectations. In 1985, Mendieta died at age 36 after falling from the window of the New York apartment she shared with her husband, sculptor Carl Andre, who was acquitted of charges around her death in 1988.
Only one other record was set during the sale. Hungarian artist Suzanne Perelman’s Nude with Surinamese Drapery (1972) sold for £44,100 ($62,000), 10 times its £4,000 ($5,660) estimate.
Elsewhere, prominent Old Masters with rising markets also saw favorable results. A still life by 17th-century Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch hammered at £270,000 ($384,00), above its £200,000 high estimate, though her record stands at $2.5 million.
Lavinia Fontana, a 16th-century Mannerist known for her portraits of Italian nobles, was among the artists that saw the highest bidding against expectations. Her ca. 16th century portrait of a young woman was expected to sell for £15,000 ($21,400), and went for five times that, at £75,000 ($107,000). Fontana, who was prominent during her lifetime and ran her own studio, remained largely forgotten for generations until the Prado Museum in Spain mounted an exhibition devoted to her and to another female Old Master, Sofonisba Anguissola, in 2019. Still, the price is far below Fontana’s previous record set in 2012 at Sotheby’s during an Old Masters evening sale, when a portrait of an Italian noblewoman and her six children sold for $602,500.
Sotheby’s is not the only auction house to stage a sale of this kind. Christie’s will do its own test of the women-only format for the first time in June.