On August 11th, Sotheby’s auction house just ended a summer exhibition in London titled “Hey’Ya [Let’s Go}- Arab Women in Sport. The exhibit features photos and videos of Arab female athletes including commentary from the artists Brigitte Lacombe and Marian Lacombe. It appears that the show was perfectly timed to coincide with Olympics. However, how do female artists compete at Sotheby’s?
The auction house was founded by Samuel Backer, a London bookseller, in 1744. Notable sales included Botticelli illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Napoleon’s library, the first printing of the Declaration of Independence, the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels, Bacon’s Triptych, 1976, and many other pieces. But when it comes to female artists, the profit lacks.
The sales for women artists are slowly improving at auction houses but that’s not saying much. The Economist: “Admittedly $86.9m, the highest price for a work by a post-war male artist (set by ‘Orange, Red, Yellow’ by Mark Rothko) dwarfs the highest price paid for a work made by a woman—$10.7m for Louise Bourgeois’s large-scale bronze ‘Spider’. However, of the top-ten men, only two are living, whereas among the top-ten women, five are still working.” Galleries and investors look at this gap and make the decision on which artists to buy and represent.
According to artnet in May of 2012, the most expensive post-war female artists are Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, Cady Noland, Marlene Dumas, Yayoi Kusama, Bridget Riley, Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, Cindy Sherman, and Lee Krasner. The sales range from $10, 722,500 to $3,177,000. The most expensive post-war male artists include Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, Roy Lichtenstein, Yves Klein, Lucian Freud, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, and Jeff Koons. The shocking range starts at $86,882,496 down to a mere $25,765,204.
UPDATE: Edvard Munch’s 1895 pastel, The Scream, sells for only $119.9 million. It becomes the most expensive piece of art to sell at auction and it will most likely hold that status for a few more months.
It’s positive to see Sotheby’s featuring more female artists in exhibitions and sales. However, the price gap is astounding with no difference in the quality of the art. The auction houses are used to forecast the aesthetic style of art that “trickles” down to local galleries. Opportunities might be more equal now for women artists but value (a.k.a. $) needs to be a priority. The highest bid shouldn’t be influenced by sex, sales, or investment. Money, gender, and art should be separated.