A man walks past Lee Krasner's 'The Eye is the First Circle' during a media preview, for Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art and Contemporary Art auctions, May 3, 2019 in New York. (AFP/Don Emmert)
With a new record expected for a work by Lee Krasner and another one possible for a Helen Frankenthaler, the appetite for female abstract painters, and women artists in general, is growing fast as New York gears up for its spring auctions beginning on Monday.
"We've seen an extraordinary recalibration in the market for female artists, both historical and contemporary," said David Galperin, head of evening sales at Sotheby's auction house.
Last year was already an auspicious one, with record-breaking auctions for the late Frankenthaler, as well as for 50-year-old Briton Cecily Brown, Grace Hartigan, who died in 2008, and above all Joan Mitchell, who died in 1992 and whose "Blueberry" went in May 2018 for $16.6 million.
David Leiber, a partner at the David Zwirner gallery, which has exhibited a number of Mitchell's works, recalled that although she found popular and critical acclaim very early on, only recently did her work profit from the increasing interest in women artists.
"These are artists whose work is just as powerful as their male contemporaries and their historical peers, and yet their markets have for decades lagged behind their contemporaries," said Galperin.
Even if a reassessment of women's works has begun, the prices they command still lag far behind the $68.9 million for a Willem de Kooning, the $58.4 million for a Jackson Pollack or the Mark Rothko that went for $86.9 million.
"It's a long overdue readjustment of the market," said Alexander Rotter, the head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie's.
The readjustment is due to several factors, one of them being the explosion in prices of works by male artists, many approaching or even topping the $100-million mark.
"I think there's definitely a hunger and appetite for opportunities within the market and this is certainly one, in the sense that the market prices are still in a way accessible relative to works of comparable quality by their male peers," said Galperin.
The upward trend is also affecting other female artists such as sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who died in 2010, and whose works could this week surpass her 2015 record of $28.2 million.
Just as it was four years ago, the work on offer is a giant steel spider, which Christie's estimates could sell on Wednesday evening for $25 million to $30 million.
Cherchez la femme
Another factor less directly linked to the art market is a recent trend toward rediscovering the work of women long overlooked, if not forgotten, in the arts, sciences and politics.
"I hope it ends up in a world where we don't need to make the distinction, where it's natural, the prices are being made for the work of art rather than for the gender," said Rotter. "But right now we're being conscious that we're paying attention to female artists."
Some collectors are specifically looking to acquire works by women artists.
"It always existed but it's now obviously bigger," Rotter said.
The move has benefited many big names but also lesser-known artists such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a painter of Nigerian origin who sold a work for $3.4 million last year at Sotheby's, or the Anglo-Ghanaian Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who had a painting go for $1.5 million in 2018.
The trend also spans works from previous eras, with $7.1 million paid in January for a canvas by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842), a record for a woman among the old masters.
In light of this trend, auction houses are now offering more works by female artists, including in their major spring and autumn sales.
"Presenting them in this new context is really critical in engaging new demographics of buyers and really shifting these markets," said Galperin.
Unlike Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi", which sold for $450 million in 2017, or "Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)" by David Hockney in 2018 -- which sold for $90.3 million, a record for a living artist -- no single work is expected to become a major event in itself during the four big sales in New York next week organized by Christie's and Sotheby's.
But market watchers will be closely following Jeff Koons' "Rabbit", which could set a new record for the American artist, whose previous best-selling work netted $58.4 million.