How much is a Y chromosome worth in the art market?
History is full of famous artist couples who inspired one another and fed each others’ creativity, whose passionate affairs helped push them to their artistic limits.
But as important as they were to one another, their importance as gauged by the art market is often deeply asymmetrical, with male artists frequently outperforming their female partners at auction, often by orders of magnitude.
Among 13 couples examined by Artsy, male artists had a higher auction record 69% of the time. And the difference is nothing near the roughly 80 cents on the dollar gender gap in economies such as the U.S. and the U.K. There are far more dramatic differences in auction records, with male artists’ records coming anywhere from 150% higher to 65,347% higher than their female partners. That, in part, reflects the art market’s tendency to handsomely reward a handful of “superstars
,” who are nearly always men
To be sure, the couples’ work often diverged, and there is broad consensus that certain artists—say,
—definitively shifted the trajectory of art history in ways that their partners (in Picasso’s case, his partner of a decade, the painter
) did not. But these examples reflect a wider pattern of buyers discounting art made by women, one documented in a working paper (meaning it has not yet been published or peer-reviewed) released in early December, which found that female artists’ work consistently sells for less than men’s at auction, and that the biggest determinant in the price gap is the level of gender inequality where the work was sold.
The paper, “Is Gender in the Eye of the Beholder? Identifying Cultural Attitudes with Art Auction Prices,” looked at 1.5 million transactions for paintings by over 62,000 artists born after 1850, sold at auction in 45 countries between 1970 and 2013. It found an overall 47.6% “gender discount” in prices, but the difference varied widely by country. The discount was higher in countries with greater gender inequality, as measured by five proxies: the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, female labor force participation, women’s share of parliamentary seats, and educational enrollment ratio. The “gender discount” was not specific to an auction house or driven by specific auctions. Even for the same artist, the price discount varied depending on where her work was sold.
“A woman sells for less in a more gender unequal country,” said Renée Adams, who co-wrote the paper with Roman Kräussl, Marco Navone, and Patrick Verwijmeren. “This is a very powerful way to rule out the idea that it’s differential ability or education that explains the price differential for women.”
The researchers complimented their analysis with an experiment in which they asked 880 participants to look at a set of paintings, half by men and half by women, and identify the gender of the artists. The participants said the painters were men 62.7% of the time, suggesting “that people associate art with men,” Adams said. “It illustrates people’s attitudes or expectations regarding artists.” A second experiment, with 1,823 participants, found that affluent men who go to art galleries with some regularity were less likely to like paintings if they thought they were made by women.
That finding was reinforced, anecdotally, by some of the feedback Adams received on the paper as she and her colleagues presented it to peers. One economist asked her, “Have you considered the fact that women can’t paint?”
Adams pointed out that that idea is exactly what the paper rules out, a sign that his attitude was deeply embedded. But there are signs that those views are shifting, as major museums and galleries exhibit and take on more female artists, as well as artists from other historically marginalized groups. In addition, Adams and her colleagues found women artists’ prices appreciate more rapidly than their male peers, suggesting that they were previously undervalued.
Still, there’s a long way to go before the market assigns women anywhere near the values men get. The world auction record for a female artist is $44.4 million for a painting by
. That’s one-tenth of the $450 million sale price notched this year for a
painting, although other factors, such as scarcity, art historical importance, and some murky geopolitical issues, were also at play. Yet even between artist couples, who clearly saw tremendous value in one another, and who often co-founded or participated in important art movements on equal terms, the values assigned to them diverge. The market creates a distance between them at odds with the intimacy with which they lived and created.
Below, 13 famous art-world couples and the gaps between each one’s auction record, retrieved from the Artnet Price Database on December 13 and 14, 2017. The “pay gap” in this case is calculated as a ratio of the higher earner’s record and the lower earner’s record, which includes the buyer’s fees charged by auction houses. The absolute difference between their values is also provided.