Upticking Markets for Women Artists

05/28/2012 4:44 PM |

Cindy Shermans Untitled #96. Photo courtesy Christies Images Ltd. 2012

  • Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #96.” Photo courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012

A recent article in The Economist, a rather curious, at times spurious analytical culling-together of data from auction tallies and Artnet, reveals that the most expensive women artists of the post-war and contemporary period, while still grossly underpaid compared to their male counterparts, can likely look forward to increasingly improving lots.

What’s more, the data indicate an arguable—in various ways—formal force behind the trend.

The analysis opens with a brief account of a recent sale of post-war and contemporary works at Christie’s. Raking in $388 million, the evening’s sales were the auction house’s highest ever for works from that period. Yet a further point of interest is the disparity between works by men and works by women—because there was at least a little bit more parity than usual: “[I]t had ten lots by eight women artists, amounting to a male-to-female ratio of five-to-one. (Sotheby’s evening sale offered a more typical display of male-domination with an 11-to-one ratio.)”

At the same time, prices remained highly divergent: “[P]roceeds on all the works by women artists in the Christie’s sale tallied up to a mere $17m—less than 5% of the total and not even half the price achieved that night by a single picture of two naked women by Yves Klein. Indeed, depictions of women often command the highest prices, whereas works by them do not.”

Nonetheless, greater parity on both fronts—number of lots and prices, that is—might be on the horizon, though the distance of any such vanishing point is wide open for debate.

For now, the top-ten rankings of artwork values from this period are gapingly distant from one another. Number one for the men, Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow, is listed at nearly $87m, over 8 times the listing for the women’s topper, Louise Bourgeois’ Spider, at just under $11m—which is still less than half of the men’s #10, Jeff Koons’ Balloon Flower, at almost $26m.

All the same, as both numbered lots and prices garnered indicate, the more female-friendly buying patterns of collectors and museums are likely to drive prices higher and higher. Time will tell, of course, and it might well take time aplenty. Equality by 2020, however numerically convenient, is probably not a very good guess.

For now, as it were, women artists, in the (almost questionable) terminology of a Christie’s representative with the first name of Amy, are in a stage of “remedial catch-up.” What says a dealer with the first name of Iwan? For him, women artists are today’s “bargains.”

Parse as you wish.

Pricing patterns aside, another noteworthy item in these top-ten rankings relates, or might relate, to the formal qualities of the works. Per the article, Pop and figuration characterize the male list, while abstraction and medium-related diversity dominate the female list.

That is quite interesting indeed. Or it could be, depending on how you define abstraction, for instance. Either way, drawing market-wide, gender-related generalizations from prices for just 20 works is a bit shaky. Shaky, too—much like the strangely placed penultimate paragraph on heterosexual male virility—is a reference to Cindy Sherman’s medium of choice as particularly promising for her success, since photography is “a medium that has only recently been elevated to the status of art .”

Which would depend on how one defines most of the words in that claim.

Also interesting: Sherman, whose works have essential price-parity with her medium-specific male peers, once held the record sale price for a photograph, just under $4m, for Untitled #96.

Pictured above, that very work engages the previously mentioned ‘depictions of women’ vs. ‘works by women’ observation quite directly.

Yet in the context of sales at these rarefied price points, that might not necessarily make for rich discussion—at least not among certain parties looking to spend certain riches according to interests in shopping for bargains.

You can follow Paul D’Agostino on Twitter @postuccio