Why women are finally making waves in the art market

Spider by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois on display at Art Basel – EPA

Last month at Art Basel, where the fair’s biggest sale at $40m (£33m) was a large steel chandelier by the late Louise Bourgeois, it was emphasized that women are gradually gaining gender parity in an art market historically dominated by men.
At auction, female artists are increasingly gaining a foothold, possibly even a leading role. A look at the list of contributors to London’s £425 million worth of modern and contemporary art sales last week shows that women are the main barrier breakers in the 20th century sections.

One prominent figure was Barbara Hepworth, for whom Bonhams fetched a record £517,000 for a painting, while Christie’s fetched a record £5.8m for a sculpture. Another, who pointed the way forward for the younger generation, was British pop artist Pauline Boty, who died in 1966 at the tragically young age of 28. French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo’s 1962 portrait of her shot up to a record £1.2m. The painting had been consigned by a recently divorced French woman, who bought it when the artist was first rediscovered in 1999 for around £4,000.

However, the biggest jump for women artists is happening in the 21st century sector. Last May in New York, Sotheby’s hosted “The Now” sale, in which the auction house focused solely on art from this century and filled the top 10 lots with the most sought-after female artists, setting records for most of them.

A hyper-realistic painting, Falling Woman (2020), by Anna Weyant, a young new artist and partner of septuagenarian super-dealer Larry Gagosian, sold for eight times an estimated $1.6 million in just its second auction. Queer and mixed-race American Christina Quarles saw her record soar from $400,000 in February 2021 to $4.5 million, buoyed by her new agent, Hauser & Wirth.

Of the 18 works that beat estimates in this sale, 13 were by women. One was the first work at auction for African-American figurative painter Jennifer Packer, who enjoyed a brilliantly reviewed exhibition at the Serpentine gallery in 2020. Her 13-foot-wide painting, Fire Next Time (2012), doubled estimates to sell in $2.3 million.

With love to Jean-Paul Belmondo by Pauline Boty (1962)

With love to Jean-Paul Belmondo by Pauline Boty (1962)

Another black artist who hit record highs last May was Simone Leigh, a representative of the US Baptist Church for white supremacists), who attracted at least six bidders before selling for $2.2 million.

It has now become routine for auctions to open their sales with the best young artists they can to set the pace. Last week at Christie’s, six of the first seven lots were by women, including the young black British painter Rachel Jones and the aforementioned Leigh and Weyant.

His contribution may not have counted as much as Monet’s £26m water lily painting that came later, but the energy of bidding multi-estimate sums in the hundreds of thousands left a much deeper impression.

At Sotheby’s Jubilee British Art Sale, five of the first six lots were by women, including a terracotta pot by Magdalene Odundo that sold for four times the pound sterling, and a Baroque-inspired painting, Boucher’s Flesh, 32 years old. the elderly Flora Yukhnovich, whose works began appearing at auction last year, topping an estimated £200,000 to sell for £2.3m.

Overall, Sotheby’s estimated that 43 percent of the living artists in its Contemporary Art sales were women. At Phillips, meanwhile, nine of the top 10 lots were by women, led by a recent Slade art school graduate, 30-year-old Antonia Showering, whose figurative painting We Stray sold for a record fourfold £239,400 at only its second auction appearance.

Boucher's Meat (2017) by Flora Yukhnovich

Boucher’s Meat (2017) by Flora Yukhnovich

Emma Baker, a specialist in contemporary art at Sotheby’s, who studied gender issues in 19th-century art at the Courtauld Institute, says the boom is largely supply-side, “because more women can study art than in the past”. .
“It’s also because their theme is more in tune with the issues of the day: feminism, race, embodiment,” she adds.

While accepting that collectors and museums may be spending more to diversify their collections, Baker downplays the question of whether women have become the next big target for market speculators. “You only have to look at the quality of the art they are producing to understand why galleries are showing it and collectors are competing for it,” she says. “It’s not just because of her gender.”

What did wealthy young women with an eye for art collect in the 1980s? If Isabel Goldsmith, daughter of James Goldsmith and Bolivian tin heiress María Isabel Patiño, is anything to go by, it was the ethereal works of the Symbolists and Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century. Goldsmith has long been regarded as one of the leading collectors in these fields; it was narrowly surpassed in 2010 when Burne-Jones’s watercolor Love Among the Ruins sold for a sensational £14.8m. But now, he is getting rid of 87 examples from his collection, valued at more than £1m, by some of the best-known artists, from the Pre-Raphaelite associate Simeon Solomon to the Belgian symbolist Fernand Khnopff.

Prices, by the way, haven’t moved that much since they were bought. One of the best lots, Khnopff’s La Medusa endormie, was bought in 1988 for £130,000 and is now estimated at £200,000. Other works are estimated for as little as £5,000. The collection can be seen at Christie’s from July 9 to 14. But in a sign of the times, the sale won’t be done in person, but (less dramatically) via online clicks.

The Sleeping Medusa (1896) by Fernand Khnopff

The Sleeping Medusa (1896) by Fernand Khnopff

As London embarks on its auction house sales of ancient masterpieces, dealers take the floor to showcase their knowledge and discoveries for London Art Week. Miles Wynn Cato, for example, recounts the constant searching, reading, dreams, and sharp gasps that are part of his discoveries as he reveals 14 recent examples from the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Lawrence, each of whom is a BBC Fake worthy subject. or the Fortune program.

So is a portrait of a roughly dressed old man at the Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker gallery that had been attributed by Christie’s to William Tate, a student of 18th-century master of light and shadow Joseph Wright of Derby, when he sold it in 2008 to a private collector for a modest £3,250.

Then, in 2020, Libson and Yarker acquired it from the collector and have now established it as the work of Wright himself, by relating it to a similar work at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery entitled The Hermit. “The starched fabric, the brick walls, the hidden light source, and the way the meat is constructed all point to Wright’s hand at work,” says Yarker. The painting, which will be published in a forthcoming catalog raisonné, now has an asking price of around £400,000.

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