Art Market

Women Painters Were the Stars of the New York Day Sales

Elena Goukassian
May 22, 2019 10:08PM

Mickalene Thomas, Just a Whisper Away, 2008. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019.

Last week, on Wednesday night, Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986) hammered down at Christie’s for $80 million ($91 million with fees), making him once again the most expensive living artist at auction. The result amounted to just over 114% of the work’s high estimate of $70 million (pre-sale estimates do not include fees). That number pales in comparison to a result achieved earlier that day at Phillips, when a painting by 37-year-old French artist Julie Curtiss, Princess (2006), sold for 1,063% of its high estimate. The incredible result, part of Phillips’s best day sale ever, was all the more incredible because it marked Curtiss’s secondary market debut. The work—an oil painting of a close-up of the back of a woman’s head, her hair in instantly recognizable Princess Leia buns—had come with a pre-sale estimate of $6,000 to $8,000, but hammered at $85,000, or $106,250 with fees.

Julie Curtiss, Princess, 2016. Courtesy of Phillips.

Amy Sherald, Inoocent You, Innocent Me, 2016. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019.


While much of the focus last week was on the big-ticket evening sales, the contemporary art day sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips saw several dozen works sell for prices far exceeding their high estimates. Many of these were made by women artists, painters specifically, whose works sold for twice, thrice, or, in Curtiss’s case, 10 times more than their high estimates. At Christie’s on Thursday, Amy Sherald’s Innocent You, Innocent Me (2016), a striking portrait of a teenager holding an ice cream cone, sold for a $280,000 hammer price ($350,000 with fees), more than double its high estimate of $120,000. And at the same Phillips sale that saw Curtiss’s incredible result, Brenna Youngblood made her auction debut with Against the Wall 1 (2007), which sold for a $11,000 hammer price ($13,750 with fees), well over its high estimate of $7,000. Both results marked new auction records for the artists.

All in all, a total of 58 works by living female artists outperformed their high estimates—setting auction records for 13 of the artists, four of whom had never had works sell at auction before—at the Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips day sales last week. Two paintings by Shara Hughes were among those that most decisively outperformed their estimates. At Christie’s day sale on Thursday, You are me and you are me too (2012) sold for a hammer price of $100,000 ($125,000 with fees), or five times its high estimate of $20,000. (The impressive result was the third highest price achieved by a Hughes work at auction). And at Phillips on Wednesday, Cliffhanger (2018)—estimated at $5,000 to $7,000—sold for a hammer price of $22,000 ($27,500), or 314% of its high estimate.

Brenna Youngblood, Against the Wall 1, 2007. Courtesy of Phillips.

Christina Quarles, Moon (Lez Go Out N’ Feel Tha Nite), 2017. Courtesy of Phillips.

While the works by Hughes, Curiss, Youngblood, and Sherald surpassed expectations, a number of other young female painters saw their own works set new personal auction records. The Phillips afternoon sale featured works by Christina Quarles and Sarah Crowner that nearly quadrupled their estimates: Quarles’s Moon (Lez Go Out N’ Feel Tha Nite) (2017) sold for a hammer price of $220,000 ($275,000 with fees, or 314% of its high estimate of $70,000); and Crowner’s Untitled (2018) sold for a $110,000 hammer price ($137,500 with fees), 275% of its high estimate of $40,000, marking the artist’s first sale above the $100,000 mark at auction. Meanwhile at Christie’s day sale on Thursday, Mickalene Thomas’s enormous and dazzling double portrait, Just a Whisper Away (2008)—estimated at $70,000 to $100,000—sold for a hammer price four times its high estimate ($400,000, or $495,000 with fees), smashing her previous record of $175,000, set in 2015 at Sotheby’s by Come with Me, Now I Need You (2007).

Also at Christie’s, Jordan Casteel’s Jonathan (2014) failed to set a new record for the popular portrait painter, but came an incredibly close second: It fetched a hammer price of $260,000 ($325,000 with fees)—or 173% of its high estimate of $150,000. (Casteel’s record was set at Christie’s London in March at £299,250, or about $380,500, by her 2015 double portrait, Patrick and Omari.) Later on Thursday, a self portrait by the 30-year-old artist sold at Phillips’s evening sale for a hammer price of $190,000 (with fees $237,500), more than double its $80,000 high estimate.

Seeking artists who haven’t peaked

Jordan Casteel, Jonathan, 2014. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019.

Jennifer Bartlett, At Sands Point #32, 1985–86. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Emily Kaplan, vice president, specialist, and head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, noted that artists with buzz in the art world and beyond had fared particularly well, most notably Sherald (who famously painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait and was then picked up by mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth) and Jordan Casteel, who currently has a major solo exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. Collectors are “looking to acquire artists that haven’t reached their peak yet,” which often means women and artists of color, she said.

Kaplan added that “painting is a bit more approachable, and there’s a trend toward figuration. Abstraction is in a little bit of a decline with young contemporary artists.” She singled out portraiture specifically as having a moment, and while she’s excited by the numbers in last week’s day sales, she’s quick to point out that, compared to their male peers, female artists are “still far behind.” She noted that while it’s unfortunate that overlooked and undervalued artists have tended to be women and people of color, hopefully increasing market demand for their works will help close that gap.

Shara Hughes, You are me and you are me too, 2012. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019.

Other notable sales of works by women 50 and younger included Katherine Bernhardt’s Untitled (2018) and Jennifer Guidi’s As Light Hits Land (Turquoise and Red #1MT, Multicolored Sand SF #1A, Black Ground) (2019). At Phillips, Bernhardt’s acrylic-on-paper portrait of the Pink Panther sold for a hammer price of $13,000 ($16,250 with fees), more than tripling its high estimate of $4,000. And at Sotheby’s on Friday, Guidi’s sand, acrylic, and oil painting vaulted its high estimate of $30,000 to hammer at $80,000 ($100,000 with fees). The impressive result was nonetheless a far cry from Guidi’s auction record of $375,000, set at Sotheby’s in December.

British artist Cecily Brown had a good week as well, with three works selling for much more than expected. At Sotheby’s day sale on Friday, her largely abstract work on paper Sirens and Shipwrecks (2018–19) sold for a hammer price of $420,000 ($524,00 with fees), or 467% of its $90,000 high estimate. And at Phillips on Wednesday, her dark seascape Sleeping Through the Tempest (2016) garnered a hammer price of $75,000 ($93,750 with fees), or 167% of its $45,000 high estimate.

Trendspotting, or not

Lorna Simpson, Corridor (Night), 2003. Courtesy of Phillips.

Despite all the broken records and works hammering well ahead of their high estimates, experts were hesitant to describe the buying frenzy for paintings by women as a trend.

“It’s a happy coincidence,” said Rebekah Bowling, Phillips’s head of day sale, afternoon session. “During the last big art-market boom in 2014, collectors started looking back at historically overlooked artists, many of whom happened to be women and artists of color.” Bowling sees last week’s results as a continuation of that. More importantly, though, she notes that the specific artists whose works far exceeded expectations, like Curtiss, “are great contemporary artists” who are pushing the boundaries of their medium, and who have plenty of support from institutions and collectors.

Mary Bauermeister, Alutable, 1972. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2019.

And while the works by women artists smashing their high estimates (and the artists’ records) were primarily painters, artists working with photography also made waves, most notably Anne Collier and Lorna Simpson. Collier’s Developing Tray #1 (White) (2008) sold at Phillips for a hammer price of $48,000 ($60,000 with fees), or 137% of its $35,000 high estimate, breaking the artist’s auction record. At Phillips’s photography sale in London the next day, her 2007 photo Folded Madonna Poster (Steven Meisel) came in at a close second at £41,250, or about $52,450. Two Simpson works outpaced their estimates: At Sotheby’s, the collage Speechless (2017) sold for a hammer price of $35,000 ($43,750 with fees) against a high estimate of $18,000; and at Phillips, Corridor (Night) (2003) sold for a hammer price of $38,000 ($47,500 with fees), or 253% of its $15,000 high estimate.

Other artists who emerged from last week’s sales with new auction records included Charline von Heyl, Jacqueline Humphries, and Luchita Hurtado (who, at 98, was making her secondary market debut). Among the artists over 50, Jennifer Bartlett and Mary Bauermeister had a particularly strong showing. At Sotheby’s on Friday, two of Bartlett’s works garnered prices more than four times their high estimates: FOUR A.M. (1991–92) set a new record for her work when it sold for a hammer price of $210,000 ($262,500 with fees), or 525% of its $40,000 high estimate; and AT SANDS POINT #32 (1985–86) fetched a hammer price of $160,000 ($200,000 with fees), or 457% of its high estimate of $35,000. A couple of Bauermeister’s intricate wall-based works at Christie’s sold for more than four times their high estimates: Alutable (1972) set a new record for Baumeister when it sold for 467% of its high estimate of $60,000, for a hammer price of $280,000 ($350,000 with fees); and Go Went Gone (1967–70) sold for a hammer price of $65,000 ($81,250 with fees), or 433% of its $15,000 high estimate.

Though she saw the surging prices for female artists last week largely as a continuation of a trend sparked years earlier, Bowling was nevertheless optimistic about the results’ implications for the market. “I’m hopeful that the art world continues to foster diversity and see things even out in terms of artists achieving the highest prices.”

Elena Goukassian
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019