Lecture: Auction History and Gender Differences in the Auction Market

Lecture: Auction History and Gender Differences in the Auction Market

White Angel
Lecture by Catherine Bert
Saturday, March 10, 2007

Thank you for stopping by this afternoon for my discussion on gender differences in the auction market, a good topic to explore for Women’s History Month. Before I delve into the details of gender differences, it is important to mention that you first need to understand the basics of bringing an artist to auction before thinking about our topic. This current exhibit helps to highlight the varying conditions for each artist (both male and female) and how it reflects in the auction market. I have lots of documentation on issues to consider when looking at an artist in auction or understanding their auction prices. There are several factors or determinants of the value of an artwork by an artist. So heed this warning that you need to consider all of these determinants in order to interpret the auction numbers.

As you will find out shortly, there are dramatic differences between comparable male and female artists in auction. First and foremost when looking at the auction records of women, you must consider that one of the major liabilities is the lack of documentation on women artists as compared to male artists. Shockingly, it was not until the 1986 edition of Janson’s History of Art that women artists even appeared in a primary collegiate teaching text for future art historians. So all across the art world for generations there were curators, museum directors, art historians and art dealers who had no textbook mention of a single woman artist only a mere thirty years ago. Not even Mary Cassatt or Georgia O’Keeffe was listed in the book? That meant that one had to be personally motivated to independently seek out and rediscover women artists. So if you can’t even research the basic biographical information on a woman artist, how are you going to begin to evaluate the value of her painting coming to auction? Now granted data and information on women artists is more available today than 30 years ago, but it still remains very limited compared to males. Even as late as 1995 only 3% of artists represented in art textbooks were women. That despite the fact that women comprise roughly 50 percent of the practicing artists now and have so for some time. There, now that we have covered that baseline lets move onto some of the specifics of the auction market.

There are two trends I wanted to review today one is the actual gender differences in auction and then what are the trends for women artists over the past twenty years. Let’s start off with comparing the very famous husband and wife couple, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. There were several major Lee Krasner (1908–1994) paintings sold for auction in New York at Sotheby’s this past November. What are the numbers? In today’s market a 56” x 56” Oil on Canvas, Night Bloom, created in 1962 sold for $755,000 – significantly above the pre-sale estimate of $250,000 – $350,000. Another Krasner, The Forest, a 50” x 20” mixed media sold likewise in November for $856,000 – again above pre-sale estimate of $400,000-$600,000. Certainly, Krasner’s prices are impressive but then lets look at her husband Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). A mixed media, entitled White Angel, 43” x 23” created in 1946 size and sold in Sotheby’s 2006 for for 2.1 million, below the pre-sale estimate of 2.5–3.5 million. Then also in 2006 at Sotheby’s Pollock sold a 24” x 36” Mixed media canvas for 1.8 million – over the pre-sale estimate of 800,000–1.2 million.

Now I know it can be argued that Jackson Pollock was a more important art historical figure and you might challenge my comparables but still this is a pretty dramatic difference – $856,000 (wife) vs 2.1 million (husband). $755,000 (wife) vs. 1.9 million (husband). Let’s try another comparison, the Impressionists: Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926) and Edgar Degas (1834–1917). First, let me qualify the comparison. In the Americans in Paris catalogue Art historical scholars wrote, “Cassatt, like Whistler, was Degas’s intellectual equal. She also was his peer financially and socially and like him, she was singularly devoted to art… their spirited, sometimes fierce relationship was stimulating to them both.” “She has infinite talent”, Degas remarked of Cassatt. P. 80.

I think its fair to compare these two impressionists in the auction market… here is what we find:

1. Cassatt, Mother Louise Holding Up Her Blue-Eyed Child, Pastel 28” x 21”, estimate 400–600,000 – sold in 2006 for 576,000.

2. Cassatt, Simone in Blue Plumed Hat, 20” x 17” Pastel 1–1.5 million estimate – bought in 2005.

How about her oils?

3. Cassatt, In 2006 Children Playing with Cat, 32” x 39”, 2–3 million – sold for 3.4 million.

Now lets look at Degas…

1. A Degas pastel 29” x 39” estimate of 1.4–1.9 million sold for 2.3 million at Christie’s in 2007 – significantly above the pre-sale estimate.

2. Three Dancers in Blue a paste of 28” x 19” estimated to sell for 7.9–11.8 million, sold for 8.2 million.

Cassatt’s pastels sell in the 100,000 of thousands, Degas sells in the millions. Only Cassatt’s oils primarily sell in the millions. Overall price range for Degas is $10,000–8.2 million, overall for Cassatt is $10,000–4.2 million.

Now we look at overall price range to see how Cassatt and Degas compare:
Cassatt price range is $10,000-4.3 million. I’ve presented two detailed comparisons but we can look at a few more artists based upon the broader indices such as overall range of prices achieved and range of price in auction. Using this data, if we look at the local 19th century American painting market we can see the same trends in gender differences. Males out performing female peers. Philadelphia painter Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942) has an auction price range of $300.-$363,000. Compared to Boston School painter, Frank Benson (1862–1951) who has a price range $3,600.–4.1 million.

If we move closer to home, a rather new and puzzling development. Woodward and DeVoll were in the same class at RISD, along with printmaker Eliza Gardiner. Reviewing RISD class records Woodward hands down competed and won every major art award in comparison to DeVoll and Gardiner. She garnered national attention right after her graduation. Woodward has always out performed DeVoll in auction until this year. Let’s look at the numbers: Mabel Woodward: price range in auction $219.-$59,700; F Usher De Voll: price range $57.-$66,000. DeVoll’s recent sale of the East River, New York pulled him ahead. In some way the competition in price points may be really the issue of subject matter – beach scenes vs New York scenes.
Overall, from skipping around from time periods, to styles and regions it still remains impressive that the male artist does significantly better in auction than the female. Many have argued that women artists are simply undervalued others cry foul but at the very least the numbers do speak to differential profiles. I just want to look at one more dramatic comparison of woman vs a male artist simply based upon the medium and image – that of Koehler-Bittkow now on view in the current exhibit and her mentor Lyonel Feininger. Look at this early 1918 woodcut 1/5, priced at $800. by Koehler-Bittkow one year before she entered the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany as a student of Lyonel Feininger. A similar print of Bittkow is in Harvard’s collection.

Now look at Feininger this 1918, 90 printed, 6” x 6” woodcut, which sold in 2006 for $6,000. Certainly, Feininger went on to develop a much more impressive career than Koehler Bittkow but if we just look at the art object and compare woodcut to woodcut – it is amazing that there is a 6 time differential between two beautiful works of art. Even as a dealer, the art world never ceases to amaze me! I wanted to conclude today by reviewing the dramatic increase in prices for women artists over the past two decades.
Let’s take a look at some examples. For instance back to the 20th Century artist, Lee Krasner.
This Lee Krasner The Forest painted in 1955 is a 50” x 20” oil on canvas sold in November 2006 at Christie’s above its estimated to go for between $400,000-$600,000. For $856,000. A comparable Lee Krasner, Dark Easter, an Oil on Canvas 58” x 38” sold at Sotheby’s in 1987 for $85,250. That is almost a 7-fold increase in price from 1987 to 2006. If we look to the 19th Century and Berthe Morisot, her price history is equally as interesting. However, this June, Christies in London sold a 24” x 28” Interior scene for 2.2 million. Whereas, a Berthe Morisot in June of 1986 an oil on canvas 28” x 28” sold in London – Christie’s for $39,000.

Again $39,000 as compared to her recent 2.2 million-sale price evidence of significant price inflation in twenty years. The good news for women artists is that there has been some noticed that works have been undervalued in the auction market and the prices are increasing. What I have done in comparing artists is very tricky – art is not a commodity that has equal value across paintings like a stock. Even at a conservative interpretation men outperform women artists. However, one might conclude that the gender differences I’ve identified in auction will remain until other determinants of value for women artists are addressed such as art historical research, publications and exhibitions. On Thursday (March 15th during Gallery Night Providence), I’ll venture into that territory when I discuss the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the new Clara Data Base of Women artists.