The Second Sex (at Auction, Anyway)

The Second Sex (at Auction, Anyway)
On Thursday evening at Phillips de Pury & Company, an unusual, almost unprecedented occurrence took place: A woman took the top lot at a major auction.

Actually, Yayoi Kusama tied for first-place honors, with her optically dense painting, Infinity Nets (T.W.A.) from 2000 (est. $300–400,000) selling to a French collector for $842,500, the same price reached by Andy Warhols single Brillo Soap Pads Box (est. $700–900,000) in silkscreen inks, household paint and plywood dating from 1964. But her achieved price can be seen as a greater coup, given its lower estimate, among other challenges.

The last time a woman artist snared top-lot honors at a major sale was at Christie’s Paris Art d’Après-Guerre et Contemporain evening sale in May 2008, when Louise Bourgeoiss Spider, a 29-inch-high sculpture in stainless steel and tapestry from 2003 (est. €1.8–2.5 million), sold for a record €2,888,250 ($4,611,607).

Seven-figure prices for women at auction are a relative rarity, with only a handful of artists having achieved that market distinction, led most recently by South African painter Marlene Dumas, whose The Visitor (1995), sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2008 for a record £3,177,250 ($6.3 million). Dumas’s work is currently the most expensive of any living woman artist.

Until that high-flying time of the market, the late and still legendary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo ruled the charts with works such as Roots (1943), an 11.8-by-19.8-inch oil on metal featuring the raven-haired artist embedded in an undulating field that sold for $5,616,000 (est. $5–7 million) in May 2006 at Sotheby’s Latin American Art sale.

Roots was the top lot of that evening sale, beating out the 1974 Francisco Zuniga painting Grupo de cuatro mujeres de pie, which made $3,712,000. The Kahlo also registered as the most expensive work of a Latin American artist at auction.

American Abstract Expressionist artist and expatriate Joan Mitchell, who died in 1992, is also a member of the exclusive seven-figure pantheon, and in fact holds the record for the most expensive work by an American woman to sell at auction. At Christie’s Paris Art d’Après-Guerre et Contemporain sale in May 2007, her large-scaled, lushly painted Untitled (1971) sold for €5,184,000 ($7,007,299), on an estimate of €1.2–1.5 million.

Five additional Mitchell paintings have earned in the $5 million dollar range at auction since 2007.

But the highest price achieved at auction for any woman artist, living or past, sits with the Russian avant-garde painter Natalia Goncharova and her Cubist-Futurist distilled Les Fleurs (1912), which racked up £5,529,250 ($10,860,832) at Christie’s London Impressionist Modern evening sale in June 2008, on an estimate of £3.5–4.5 million.

It had previously sold at auction in November 1985, at Sotheby’s New York, for $46,750, against a $40,000–50,000 pre-sale estimate.

As the now time-worn advertising jingle goes, “You’ve come a long way, baby” definitely applies to the top rank of women in the art-market sweepstakes. But as much as performances such as Yusama's are to be celebrated, there's still a long way to go.