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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.

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.