British artist Tracey Emin was in the crowd when “My Bed,” her unmade bed with rumpled sheets, empty vodka bottles, underwear and cigarette packets sold for 2.5 million pounds ($4.3 million) on July 1 at Christie’s in London, more than five times her previous high.
“I was really nervous and then six people started bidding and everybody cheered and that made me feel better,” the 51-year-old Emin said in an interview last week. “I thought it was just brilliant.”
The five-year art rally is lifting the value of works by women in a market long dominated by men, and collectors are taking notice. Six women set personal records in the past two months at modern and contemporary-art evening auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s (BID) and Phillips in New York and London. A 1960 Joan Mitchell abstract painting sold for $11.9 million at Christie’s in New York in May, the most ever for a work by a woman.
Artworks by the best-selling women have brought in 12 cents per dollar produced by those of their male counterparts since 2004, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg Rankings from Artnet’s database. This season’s results signal that women are starting to narrow the price gap, as global collectors hunt for undervalued works that may become lucrative investments.
“Historical corrections are in vogue,” said Amy Cappellazzo, a former Christie’s executive who runs advisory firm Art Agency Partners in New York. “There are more women artists who are getting their due.”
Rosemarie Trockel’s knitted wool textile went for $4.98 million, quadruple her previous peak, at Sotheby’s in New York in May. Sarah Lucas’s sculpture of four bunnies wearing stockings and sitting on chairs fetched $905,000, almost twice her prior record.
At Phillips, the boutique auction house owned by Russia’s luxury retailer Mercury Group, Dana Schutz’s colorful painting of figures bowing over a disjointed table set a new mark at $605,000. Tauba Auerbach’s trompe l’oeil canvas generated $1.8 million to eclipse her record set the day before.
Emin’s 1998 piece, auctioned for the first time, is one of the best-known works to emerge from the Young British Artists movement. It was bought by her London dealer, Jay Jopling of White Cube gallery. Advertising mogul Charles Saatchi had paid $255,000 in 2000 for “My Bed,” a work that sparked debate about the meaning of art when it was originally exhibited in London.
Emin, who ranks 15th among living female artists’ sales at $13.1 million since 2004, has seen her revenue jump 332 percent in the past five years. David Maupin, her New York dealer at Lehmann Maupin gallery, called the price a bargain for “a very important work.”
Mitchell, who died in 1992, is the top-selling woman of the past three decades, as her works brought $293.3 million from 1985 through June 30. Her sales almost tripled in five years as art prices rebounded from the financial crisis.
“It is becoming apparent that she is equal to her male peers -- de Kooning, Kline and Twombly -- and that her prices were kept back only by her gender,” said John Cheim, founder of Cheim & Read gallery in New York, which represents Mitchell’s estate and is showing her paintings of trees through Aug. 29. “There is still a long way to go but she is catching up.”
Two industry veterans are the top-ranked living female artists by auction revenue in the past decade.
Yayoi Kusama, the 85-year-old Japanese painter, sculptor and filmmaker known for psychedelic colors and polka dots, is No. 1 after selling $163.5 million of works from Jan. 1, 2004, through June 30. Her revenue more than tripled in five years.
Photographer Cindy Sherman, 60, is second with sales of $91.5 million. Her revenue has risen almost 500 percent since 2009. An untitled self-portrait of a blond Sherman pulling a black cover over her chest sold at Sotheby’s in May for a near-record $3.86 million.
Their prices still pale next to those generated by men.
German painter Gerhard Richter, the best-selling living male artist, produced revenue of $1.29 billion since 2004, according to Artnet. His sales rose 894 percent in five years.
Sculptor Jeff Koons, who sold a blue stainless-steel dolphin resembling an inflatable plastic toy for $5 million last month at Switzerland’s Art Basel, ranks second with revenue of $581.8 million and a 162 percent increase.
The record for a single work is also held by a man. The late Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” sold for $142.4 million at Christie’s in New York in November.
Overt sexism isn’t to blame, said Ann Marshall, owner of Durham Press, a Bucks County, Pennsylvania, gallery and studio. Collectors “respond to what they like or what they think is going to be valuable,” she said.
Women are gaining recognition from what Suzanne Gyorgy, head of art advisory and finance at New York-based Citigroup Inc.’s Citi Private Bank, called “thoughtful, groundbreaking exhibitions” at major museums.
Beatriz Milhazes, a Brazilian known for abstract prints and paintings that fuse Latin American and European cultural images, has pieces in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The subject of a retrospective at the Perez Art Museum Miami starting Sept. 19, she ranks eighth among living female artists, with sales of $22.7 million since 2004.
“Twenty years ago, we couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to her work,” Marshall said.
The spate of records is “kind of mind-blowing,” Gyorgy said, “but the rest of the market is consistently strong.”
In the first half of this year at Christie’s, 479 artworks sold for more than $1 million and 52 exceeded $10 million, the company said this week. Sotheby’s sold 492 lots for more than $1 million.
Sales for painters Elizabeth Peyton and Xu Lele and sculptor Cady Noland have climbed more than 3,000 percent in five years. Even so, works by the top 20 living female artists totaled $649.7 million since 2004, compared with $5.64 billion for the best-selling males. The results can reflect more lots changing hands as well as rising prices.
Trophy pieces by women eventually will start to go for tens of millions of dollars, like those of Bacon or Andy Warhol, collectors and dealers said.
“They will reach those levels in a decade, but only a handful,” said Valeria Napoleone, a collector in London who owns about 290 artworks by women. “The talent, the consistency and seriousness in which they approach their practice will be recognized.”
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