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Who Are The Most Successful Female Artists in Auction?

  • Jenny Saville - Propped (detail), 1992, a work that broke a record for women artists by selling for $10,9 million
January 27, 2020
A philosophy graduate interested in critical theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

It seems that female artists are finally getting their long-overdue recognition, as the market for their work doubled over the past decade. Jenny Saville broke a record in 2018 when her painting sold for $10,9 million in auction at Sotheby’s London, earning her the title of the most expensive living female artist.

However, the list of the most expensive artists at auction is still heavily dominated by males, as female artists represent just 2% of the market. Moreover, there is a significant gap between male and female artists in the art market sales and value. For comparison, Jeff KoonsRabbit from 1986, which broke the record for a living male artist at auction in 2019, was sold for a staggering $91.1 million. That the art market overwhelmingly finds greater value in work produced by men than that made by women has also been revealed in a joint investigation by In Other Words and artnet News, who together gathered and analyzed data from international auctions, leading galleries and the Art Basel fair. The market for art by women is not only smaller, but it is also disproportionately concentrated on a few artists.

Collectors are still reluctant to pay high prices for work by female artists and it is necessary to educate them and confront them with quality. There also needs to be a larger representation of female artists in galleries and art fairs as this has an impact on the long-term prospects of women’s markets: if they sell fewer works on the primary market, then their secondary markets will necessarily be inhibited.

In the hope that the market will move in the right direction at a faster pace, we bring together ten of the most expensive female artists whose work sold big in auction.

Featured image: Jenny Saville – Propped (detail), 1992.

  • Julie Mehretu - Black Ground (Deep Light), 2006

Julie Mehretu

The Ethiopian-born and US-based artist, Julie Mehretu is famous for her works with a strong note of abstraction. Using heavy layering, she creates images from patterns and architectural photographs that depict the cumulative effects of urban sociopolitical changes through the landscape’s alteration of architecture, topography, and iconography.

Her most expensively sold paintings are Black Ground (Deep Light) from 2006, sold for $4,713,405 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2019; Rise Of The New Suprematists from 2001, which went for $4,000,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2019; Conjured Parts (Dresden) from 2007, hammer price $2,800,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2018; and Arcade from 2005, sold for $2,500,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2019.

The total turnover for her works is $21,729,529, with the majority of the works (the total of 12) being sold in the price range of between $10k and $50k, while seven of her works sold for between $1m to $5m. She sold the biggest number of works in 2017 – 11, while in 2019, she sold 7 works.

Featured image: Julie Mehretu – Black Ground (Deep Light), 2006.

  • Barbara Hepworth - Parent I, 1970, sold for $4 million

Barbara Hepworth

Considered as one of the most significant British sculptors of the 20th century, Barbara Hepworth is known for her biomorphic forms. Reflecting the relationship between volume and space, her abstract works were often created with hollow interior spaces that disrupt smooth surface textures.

With the total turnover of $27,233,987, her most expensively sold works are Parent I from 1970, sold for $4,031,520 at Sotheby’s London in 2016; the $2,300,000 Garden Sculpture (Model For Meridian) from 1960, sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2018; Quiet Form from 1973, whose price is now $2,235,880 from a Sotheby’s auction London; and The Family Of Man: Youth from 1972, sold for $2,200,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2018; among others. The majority of her works went for between $100k and $500k (a total of 24), while only 7 went for over $1m. She sold the biggest number of works in 2018 – 23, while in 2019, she sold 9.

Featured image: Barbara Hepworth – Parent I, 1970.

  • Jenny Saville - Propped, 1992, a work that broke an auction record by selling for $10,9 million

Jenny Saville

Belonging to the Young British Artists groupJenny Saville is best known for her profoundly stylized pieces of nude portraiture which depict captivating bulky figures. Fascinated by the human body, she describes flesh as “the most beautiful thing to paint.”

With a total of 12 paintings sold, she has a total turnover of $33,875,157, with 3 works selling for between $100k and $500k and 3 selling for over $1m. Her most expensive artworks are Propped from 1992, a painting that broke an auction record by selling for $10,961,942 at Sotheby’s London in 2018 and earned her the title of the most expensive living female artist; Shift from 1997, which went for $7,869,290 at Sotheby’s London in 2016; and Juncture from 1994, which sold for $6,006,211 at Sotheby’s London in 2019; among others. In 2018, she sold only Popped, after which she sold 6 artworks in 2019.

Featured image: Jenny Saville – Propped, 1992.

  • Who Are The Most Successful Female Artists in Auction?, Tamara de Lempicka painting

Tamara de Lempicka

A cosmopolitan painter and icon of the art deco movement, Tamara de Lempicka created images that became the symbols of an era, the “crazy” 1920s and 1930s. She is best known for her polished portraits of the rich, and for her highly stylized paintings of nudes.

Within the total turnover of $35,426,029, she sold the majority of her paintings in the price range of between $10k and $50k (a total of 19), while 5 works went for over $1m. Her most expensive pieces are a painting La Tunique Rose from 1927, sold for $11,500,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2019; La Musicienne from 1929, sold for $7,800,000 at Christie’s New York in 2018; Femme A La Colombe from 1931, sold for $4,500,000 at Christie’s New York in 2018; and Les Jeunes Filles from 1930, sold for $4,400,000 at Christie’s New York in 2019; among others. She sold the biggest number of works in 2018 – 27, while in 2019, she sold 13.

Featured image: Tamara de Lempicka – La Tunique Rose, 1927.

  • Marlene Dumas - The Visitor, 1995, sold for $5,6 million in auction

Marlene Dumas

A versatile South African artist, Marlene Dumas is known for her characteristic visual aesthetic that relies on unique forms and washed up colors. Analyzing and deconstructing photographs, she creates some of the most exciting stuff that the art scene has seen for quite some time.

Within her total turnover of $81,689,643, the artist sold the majority of her works in the price range between $10 and $50k (a total of 139), with 23 going for over $1m (of which one went for over $5m). Her most expensive works are The Visitor from 1995, sold for $5,621,700 at Sotheby’s London in 2008; Colorfields from 1997, sold for $3,500,000 at Phillips New York in 2017; De Gele Vingers Van De Kunstenaar [The Yellow Fingers Of The Artist] from 1985, sold for $3,000,000 at Phillips New York in 2017; and Magdalena (Underwear And Bedtime Stories) from 1995, sold for $3,000,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2017; among others. She sold the biggest number of works in 2010 – 46, while in 2019, she sold 20 works.

Featured image: Marlene Dumas – The Visitor, 1995.

  • Cecily Brown - Suddenly Last Summer, 1999, sold for $5,8 million in auction

Cecily Brown

A British contemporary artist, Cecily Brown embraces both representational and abstract elements, creating sensual depictions of figures and nudes. Taking her subjects out of their contexts, she places them within a new aesthetic reality.

Within a total turnover of $52,959,158, Brown sold the majority of her works in the price range between $100k and $500k (a total of 21), while 17 went for over $1m (of which one work went for over $5m). Her most expensive works are Suddenly Last Summer from 1999, sold for $5,800,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2018; Night Passage from 1999, sold for $3,391,707 at Christie’s London in 2019; The Skin Of Our Teeth from 1999, sold for $3,364,625 at Sotheby’s London in 2018; and Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard [Triptych] from 2011, sold for $3,100,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2019; among others. She sold the biggest amount of works in 2018 and 2019, 20 works each.

Featured image: Cecily Brown – Suddenly Last Summer, 1999.

  • Agnes Martin - Orange Grove, 1965, sold for $9,4 million

Agnes Martin

An American Minimalist artist, Agnes Martin is known for a particular abstract geometric language that has endured throughout her long career. Inspired by the arid landscape of New Mexico and Zen Buddhism and Taoism, she sought to capture the innocence and simplicity of everyday life.

The total turnover for the artist’s works is $80,413,724, with the majority being sold in the price range of between $1m and $5m (a total of 15), while 4 went for over $5m. Her most expensive pieces sold in auctions are Orange Grove from 1965, sold for $9,400,000 at Christie’s New York in 2016; Untitled #13 from 1980, sold for $7,000,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2017; Untitled #6 from 1983, sold for $5,800,000 at Christie’s New York in 2016; Happy Valley from 1967, sold for $5,500,000 at Christie’s New York in 2015; among others. The peak for her works was in 2016 when 23 artworks were sold in auctions, while in 2019, there were 12 sold.

Featured image: Agnes Martin – Orange Grove, 1965.

  • Louise Bourgeois - Spider, 1997, sold for $28 million in auction

Louise Bourgeois

French-born American sculptor, painter, and printmaker, Louise Bourgeois is celebrated for a highly personal visual language comprised of mythological and archetypal imagery, portraying spirals, spiders, cages, medical tools, and sewn appendages to symbolize the feminine psyche, beauty, and psychological pain. Through her art, she expressed themes of loneliness and conflict, frustration and vulnerability.

The total turnover for her works is $123,932,030, with the majority being sold at the price range between $10k and $50k (a total of 33), while there are 6 works sold for over $5m. Her most expensive work ever sold is Spider from 1997, sold for $28,000,000 at Christie’s New York in 2019; followed by another Spider from 1997, sold for $25,000,000 at Christie’s New York in 2015. Spider IV from 1997 went for $12,800,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2017, while the hammer price for Spider II from 1995 was $10,000,000 at Christie’s New York in 2017; among others. The majority of her works were sold in 2016 – up to 40, while in 2019, 25 of her works went down in auctions.

Featured image: Louise Bourgeois – Spider, 1997.

  • Yayoi Kusama - Interminable Net #4, 1959, sold for $6,7 million

Yayoi Kusama

A world-famous icon of contemporary art, Yayoi Kusama has been combining ideas of pop art, minimalism, and psychedelia throughout her work in paintings, performances, room-size presentations, outdoor sculptural installations, literary works, films, design, and architectural interventions during her long and influential career.

The total turnover for Kusama’s works is $194,977,508, with the majority being sold between $100k and $500k, a total of 174, while 40 sold for between $1m and $5m and 3 sold for over $5m. Her most expensive work ever sold is Interminable Net #4 from 1959, sold for $6,751,634 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2019; followed by the $6,064,460 No. Red B from 1960, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2015; Pumpkin (Twpot) from 2010, sold for $5,859,909 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2019; and Untitled from 1972, which went for $4,608,432 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2017. She sold the biggest number of artworks in 2016, a total of 184, while in 2019, she sold 135.

Featured image: Yayoi Kusama – Interminable Net #4, 1959.

  • Joan Mitchell - Blueberry, 1969

Joan Mitchell

An essential proponent of the American Abstract Expressionist movementJoan Mitchell was one of the first female painters of the era to gain critical and public acclaim. Waging on the expressive potential of the painterly mark itself, her work is celebrated for its compositional rhythms, bold coloration and sweeping gestural brushstrokes.

The total turnover for her works is $438,135,417, with the majority being sold for between $100 and $500, a total of 136, 85 selling for between $1m and $5m, and 18 selling for over $5m. Her most expensive work ever sold is Blueberry from 1969, sold for $14,500,000 at Christie’s New York in 2018; followed by Plowed Field from 1971, sold for $11,500,000 at Christie’s New York in 2019; Untitled from 1960, sold for $10,500,000 at Chisrite’s New York in 2014; and Hans from 1981, sold for $10,500,000 at Christie’s New York in 2019. The peak for her work was in 2008 when a total of 85 were sold in auctions, while in 2019, there were 31 sold.

Featured image: Joan Mitchell – Blueberry, 1969.