Why Modern Art Portraits of Men Sell for Less Than Those of Women

An artwork by Tamara de Lempicka that is coming to auction can tell us about how different portrait subjects are valued.
Source: Sotheby's

It’s unclear if the artist and Jazz Age socialite Tamara de Lempicka was sleeping with Guido Sommi when she painted his portrait in 1929. “We believe he was her lover,” said Jeremiah Evarts, the head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sales. “Though it’s also true that he was married at the time.” What is crystal clear, however, is that the portrait of Sommi is a rare example from a period that James Carona, the co-owner of Heather James Fine Art, described as the height of Lempicka’s artistic output. “Let’s say 1925 to 1932,” he said. “That’s the spot.”

The Sommi portrait hung in a private collection for more than 40 years; now it's coming to Sotheby’s New York, carrying an estimate of $4 million to $6 million. While that range places the work firmly within Lempicka's top 10 prices at auction, it’s well below her record, which was achieved five years ago when a smaller, later painting sold for $8.5 million at Sotheby’s in New York.

TORINO, ITALY - 2015/03/18: Over 80 works were displayed at the exhibition of "Tamara De Lempicka". Tamara de Lempicka was a Polish Art Deco painter and "the first woman artist to be a glamour star".  The exhibit is until August 30, 2015. (Photo by Elena Aquila/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Visitors at an exhibition of Tamara de Lempicka's work in Torino, Italy, in 2015.

Photographer: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Sommi portrait’s estimate is, moreover, a pittance compared to what Lempicka's art has reportedly sold for on the private market. “There have been Lempickas that have traded for as high as $15 million and even $20 million,” said Carona, who said he’s sold five major works by Lempicka and would sell more if he could find any. “I have clients who are actively looking for these prime period pieces,” he explained. “And in spite of my efforts, I can’t get them.” Indeed, Carona said, he recently fielded an unsolicited offer on behalf of a client. “They offered $12 million for a Lempicka,” he said. “And the client turned them down.”

What differentiates Sotheby’s Lempicka from her artworks that trade at double and even triple its price? The answer, Carona said, is sex. “There’s no question about it,” he said. “Male subjects sell for less.” This is borne out in Lempicka’s public sales, too. Her top five artworks at auction are all female portraits; 17 of her top 20 public sales are also of women.

Over 80 works on display at the exhibition "Tamara De Lempicka" until August 30, 2015. An aristocratic artist, free, transgressive told through a cut inedited. So we find a Lempicka most intimate and secret. (Photo by Elena Aquila/NurPhoto) (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The exhibition in Torino had more than 80 works.

Photographer: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There isn’t one single reason for this discrepancy, though Evarts speculated that it comes down to two points: The broader issue, he said, is that “if you look at the history of art, there are more portraits of women than men.” That preponderance of women-on-canvas could have contributed to a culture in which female portraits are more accepted and are thus valued more than their male equivalents.

The second reason, Evarts said, is specific to Lempicka's market. “There have really only been two major male portraits that have come to auction,” he said. “When there are only two options, it’s hard to create a market out of that—you can’t point to many results to justify a price.”

And there’s a third reason: Sotheby’s could be (purposefully) overly modest in its expectations. “It’s a conservative number,” said Carona. “Auction houses want to sell things, and collectors might get excited if they think they can get it for so little.”

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