Works by female artists are notoriously underrepresented in the auction world, where far fewer are sold for far smaller sums in comparison to art by men.
But new figures from Sotheby’s Mei Moses Indices, which measure the art market, suggest that works by women are actually a better investment. Analysis of repeat sales between 2012 and 2018 found that works by female artists increased significantly more in value than pieces by male artists.
In the 50 years before 2012, Sotheby’s found, art by men and women increased in value between auction sales at approximately the same rate. Between 2012 and 2018, however, work by female artists rose in value by an average of 72.9%, while art by male artists rose in value by only 8.3%.
Michael Klein, head of Sotheby’s Mei Moses and author of the study, told CNN: “The higher returns demonstrate how market demand is rising for female artists — that works previously appraised by the market at any price level are now coming back to market and commanding higher prices commensurate with increasing demand.”
The findings should be approached with some caution, however, according to cultural economist Clare McAndrew, who publishes annual reports on the global art market for Art Basel and investment bank UBS. McAndrew flagged the disparity between the sample sizes assessed by Sotheby’s: 2,472 repeat sales by 499 female artists, compared to 55,706 repeat sales by 8,477 male artists.
“It’s really difficult for women to make it into the secondary auction market [which follows the primary gallery market] in the first place,” McAndrew told CNN. “So there’s a huge bias in this data — the women it’s looking at are the really successful ones.”
Sotheby’s Michael Klein contested McAndrew’s assessment of the findings, saying that about three quarters of both the female and male artists were similarly successful, with between one and three repeat auction sales between 2012 and 2018. “Their claim doesn’t explain why the indices tracked together closely for so long before diverging,” he added.
McAndrew’s 2019 analysis of the art market indicated that in 2018, works by female artists represented just 8% of the total lots sold at auction, and only 5% of the auction market by value.
She stressed that the figures should not be interpreted to mean that female artists are outperforming their male counterparts.
“It’s easy to look at these things and say ‘women artists are doing better’ but it’s just not true,” she said.
There was still a great deal of gender bias in the art world, McAndrew said. “Classes graduating from art college are either gender balanced or they’re predominantly female,” McAndrew said. “But there’s much less established female artists than there are male artists.”
What’s more, the 2018 report “Glass Ceilings in the Art Market,” by Fabian Bocart of Artnet, Marina Gertsberg of Maastricht University, and Rachel A.J. Pownall of Tilburg University, found that female artists were significantly less likely to progress from the gallery market to the auction market. Meanwhile the top 0.03% of the auction market, representing 40% of sales value, was completely inaccessible to female artists.
“The average price for female art selling at auction is significantly less than for male artists,” Pownall told CNN, pointing to data in the “Glass Ceilings” report: $39,000 for artworks by women, compared to $46,000 for artworks by men.
“I think women command better returns because generally they have been undervalued relative to male artists,” she said.