Female and African American Artists Continue to Ascend at Auction, a Study Finds

By Michael L. Klein
A new analysis reveals that art prices swelled in November 2019’s marquee auctions, chiefly in regard to female and African American artists.

P rice growth measured by Sotheby’s Mei Moses was consistent with the prior five seasons of New York auctions. This fact holds despite lower auction totals in November’s major Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary art auctions in New York.

Sotheby’s Mei Moses (SMM) price indices measure art market demand by using repeat sales of the same work of art sold at multiple public auctions.

Contemporary artworks achieved a healthy median Compound Annual Return (CAR) of 6.9 percent over a median holding period (the time between auction sales) of 13 years – which is based on 130 works that resold, utilizing Sotheby’s Mei Moses.* This is consistent with past auctions since 2017, with SMM CARs of 6–8 percent.

For 230 Impressionist and Modern artworks that resold this past week, the median CAR was 2.5 percent, consistent with the prior five seasons in the 2–4 percent range.

Sotheby’s Mei Moses Compound Annual Returns – New York Evening & Day Sales

In November, Impressionist and Modern art pieces were held a median of 23 years between auctions – ten years longer than the holding period for Contemporary works, which held a median of 13 years. Collectors are keeping Impressionist and Modern artworks for an increasingly longer time, as the median steadily increased from 14 years, as shown in the chart below. Contemporary art continues to return to market at a median of 11–15 years, as seen over the past four auction seasons.

Sotheby’s Mei Moses Holding Period – New York Evening & Day Sales

Female artists continue meteoric auction growth

Female artists continue to realize accelerating price growth, exceeding that of male artists, according to a study by Sotheby’s Mei Moses published in August 2019. Between 2012 and 2018, prices for works by female artists rose by an average 72.9 percent, while art by male artists appreciated by only 8.3 percent.

In November 2019, female artists’ art earned several of the highest price appreciations – underscoring the radical shifts in market perception, particularly for some of the most widely-celebrated female artists.

Tamara de Lempicka, LA TUNIQUE ROSE, 1927. SOLD $13,362,500.

Tamara de Lempicka’s La Tunique Rose set a record for the artist and was the most expensive work by a female artist sold in November 2019, garnering $13.4 million ($6–8 million estimate) at Sotheby’s. The work had remained in the same collection since 1983, where it was purchased at a Christie’s sale of Fine Art Nouveau and Art Deco sale in October 1983 for $82,500 ($60,000-$80,000 estimate). At a 15.2 percent CAR, or 162x price appreciation, this lesser-known painting outpaced Claude Monet’s Meules which was purchased only three years later in 1986 for $2.5 million at Christie’s New York and sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2019 for $110.7 million, earning a 12.1 percent CAR.

Joan Mitchell, SAINT MARTIN LA GARENNE IX, 1987. SOLD $2,900,000.

Of the season, two exemplars stand out, both demonstrating the aforementioned rapid price growth. Lee Krasner’s Sun Woman I sold for $7.4 million ($6 million–8 million estimate) at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 15 November, realizing an astounding 32.4 percent CAR since it was last seen at auction in November 2011. Then, it sold for $782,500 ($600,000–800,000 estimate) at Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Day Sale. Joan Mitchell’s Saint Martin la Garenne IX exceeded estimates in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Sale in November 2019, selling for $2.9 million ($1–1.5 million estimate) and achieving a 26.5 percent CAR, subsequent to being purchased at the Collection Marcel Brient – La Page Française sale at Sotheby’s Paris in September 2012 for €432,750 ($559,230, €120,000–180,000 estimate).

Norman Lewis, RITUAL, 1962. SOLD $2,780,000.

African American artists also surpassed estimates and records this November. Notable sales at Sotheby’s include Charles White’s Ye Shall Inherit the Earth ($1.76 million vs. $700,000 high estimate), Norman Lewis’s Ritual ($2.78 million vs. $1 million high estimate), and the 2nd highest auction price for Kerry James Marshall for Vignette ($18.5 million vs 7.5 million high estimate). However, all these works appeared at auction for the first time, illuminating how this market is rapidly growing.

The predictability and unpredictability of the art market

Sotheby’s Mei Moses can predict selling prices based on historic trends. When actual hammer prices vary significantly, it is a sign of a shift in long term demand.

Vincent van Gogh, PAYSAN BRÛLANT DE MAUVAISES HERBES, 1883. Sold $3,140,000.

Sotheby’s Mei Moses was on target in predicting that Vincent van Gogh’s Paysan brûlant de mauvaises herbes would sell well above its $600,000–800,000 estimate. This rare work from Van Gogh’s time in Drenthe is only the sixth Van Gogh painting from 1883 or earlier to come to market in the past decade, according to Artnet. These sales’ range reflect the historically lower demand for Van Gogh’s early works. SMM’s estimate was $3.95 million given its prior price of $440,000 in 1989 at Christies New York, and the piece sold for $3.14 million to two Dutch museums, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Drents Museum in Assen. Given this outcome, it’s fair to assess that market demand for Van Gogh’s earlier works may be picking up commensurate with his later works.

Pablo Picasso, one of the most prolific and well-represented artists at auctions, delivered some surprises at the November auctions. One work, entitled Portrait de Lola, soeur de l’artiste was estimated by SMM at $4.73 million in 2019, having been previously purchased in Paris in 1988 for about $1.39 million. It sold right on the SMM estimate, for $4.7 million. Nus, on the other hand, had a sale range of $12–18 million, and a SMM estimate at the high end, $17.9 million, having been purchased for $6.05 million in 1997. It sold for $9.95 million, showing that forecasts don’t always predict actual results.

*Sotheby’s Mei Moses continues to use the methodology designed by professors Michael Moses and J.P. Mei in 2001 of auction sales at Sotheby’s & Christie’s with prior auction prices at any auction house publicly available and excludes bought-in lots.

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