It’s no surprise that the art market has always been dominated by male artists. Not until the 20th century did art become a viable career option for women, and the prices asked for their work has never reached the dizzying heights their male counterparts can command.
In 2014, a painting titled Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) by American artist Georgia O’Keeffe set the record for a woman artist at auction when it sold for US$39 million. It was the 20th highest price that year, but she was the only woman to feature on the list of 2014’s top 100 auction sales. Trawling back through years of auction data shows that not once have women made it into the top 10 auction sales results of the year and they are lucky if they make it even into the top 100.
The market in New Zealand is a little better and so far in 2021, two women, Frances Hodgkins and Rita Angus, sit in our top 10. It’s encouraging to see a significant increase in the attention and subsequently the prices being paid for the work of these and other New Zealand women artists. The most recent round of auctions, in July and August, demonstrated this. The auction houses in Auckland, and Dunbar Sloane in Wellington reported very strong results, with significant engagement across all areas, but a consistent theme across the board was an interest in women artists of the 20th century.
At Art + Object’s Important and Contemporary Art sale last month, Fiona Pardington photographs reached new heights, fetching the top two prices for the artist as well as the top price for a contemporary photograph sold at auction. One of the sale highlights was Davis Kea Wings (Above), recently exhibited at Toi Tū Toi Ora at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, where it was dramatically hung in a dimly lit room. This photograph was intended to be printed on a gesso base which eventually proved too technically difficult and costly to pursue and only two were printed in this way, of which this was one. Even if it had hit the low estimate of $60,000 it would have taken the auction record, but the work was contested by five parties and sold for $111,000.
The second work, Captive Female Huia, fetched the second-highest auction price, $72,000, against a reserve that reflected the $35,000 it sold for last year. This photograph was printed only in 2016, so the growth in the artist’s market is quite staggering.
Webb’s have recently had great success with the work of pioneering modernist Louise Henderson, whose efforts have had a critical reassessment after a touring exhibition from Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki revealed the breadth of her career to a wider audience. A dreamy fluid diptych painting, Untitled c.1965, sold in the room for $65,000, just shy of the low estimate but a huge jump from 2015, when it was sold as two separate works, fetching a combined $15,000, in the Ron Sang Collection at Art + Object. Following on from the huge price Webb’s achieved for a Louise Henderson watercolour in April 2021 ($25,500), another from the same period, Flower Forms 1972, also did well to realise $19,000 against a low estimate of $15,000. Just a few years ago, similar watercolours from the same period would have made between $2000 and $5000 at auction.
At International Art Centre’s auction of Important and Rare Art, the star was a repatriated and previously unrecorded painting by Frances Hodgkins, The Rialto, Venice, which was painted in 1906 and had spent its entire life with the Italian family of the original owner.
The discovery of the work – unknown to scholars in New Zealand, including Frances Hodgkins expert Mary Kisler, who compiles the Hodgkins catalogue raisonné – was extremely exciting. Media stories about the painting were probably at least partly responsible for the number of bidders who turned out to compete for it. Bidding opened on the low estimate of $70,000 and a total of 35 bids were placed before the work sold to a New Zealand collector for $260,000, a record for a watercolour by the artist and the third-highest price overall for her work.
Very few oil paintings of landscapes by Rita Angus come up for sale and such an item is on the wish list of many a serious collector, so Dunbar Sloane’s promotion of her Mount Stewart, Waiau, North Canterbury C.1931-2 as a “mistresspiece” rather than a masterpiece was well justified in advance of their New Zealand and International Fine Art auction. A survey exhibition of Angus’s work was due to take place at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last year but the Covid crisis scuttled this plan. I can only imagine what such a prestigious exhibition would do for her market if one eventually took place. It’s highly likely the $270,000 achieved for her Mount Stewart work against a low estimate of $180,000 will look very reasonable in the not-too-distant future.
Angus’s most famous painting, Cass, dating from the same period as the Mount Stewart, has the honour of being voted the nation’s favourite artwork and it was this taonga that spurred Adrian Locke, chief curator at the Royal Academy, to learn more about her and subsequently propose the exhibition. So while New Zealand women artists may have a way to go to catch up to their male contemporaries in the art-price stakes, the Rita Angus experience demonstrates that they can aspire to make their mark on the international stage.
All prices quoted are hammer price and do not include the additional buyer’s premium of approximately 20%. Further reading on successful women artists.
Briar Williams is a fine art valuer at Art Valuations NZ