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Who runs the (art) world? Girls! (well, not quite yet, but they’re getting there…)

This week’s Post-War and Contemporary auctions in London saw Sotheby’s and Christie’s yet again fighting to attract the biggest and most high profile global art collectors. And Sotheby’s arguably won the contemporary battle, recovering from a lacklustre Impressionist sale last week. But for me, the highlight was the success of the female artists, especially in the run-up to International Women’s Day. Still far below the men, and only contributing to a fraction of the sales, these were the most promising results I have seen for a number of these extremely talented, but somewhat under-rated artists.

But first, to summarise the sales and put the women’s results into perspective.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Apex', acrylic, oil stick and Xerox collage on canvas, 172.5 x 218.6 cm

Sotheby’s kicked off with a £93.2 million Contemporary evening sale, where the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat triumphed as ‘Apex’ sold for £8.2 million. Gerhard Richter’s ‘Abstraktes Bild’ came in a close second at £6.9 million, while Freud and Lichtenstein vied for third spot, both netting £5.8 million. The day sale then grossed £16.1 million, with a number of lower priced pieces tripling their estimate to bump up the numbers.

David Hockney, 'Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott', 1969, acrylic on canvas, 214 x 305 cm

Christie’s followed the next night with – yet again – all eyes on a piece by David Hockney. This time, the monumental ‘Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott’ reached £37.7 million – a far cry from his £69 million pool painting, but by far the best in this sale nonetheless, and in fact almost half the total sale, which stood at £79.3 million. Nicolas de Staël was another success, with his three pieces totalling an impressive £9.8 million. The day sale then grossed £16.8 million, with a key Cy Twombly painting smashing its £700,000 - £1,000,000 estimate, reaching £2.5 million.

And now on to the important part…the women.

Jenny Saville, 'Juncture', 1994, oil on canvas, 305.1 x 168.3 cm

The female star of the Sotheby’s show was Jenny Saville for the second Sotheby’s London Contemporary auction in a row. ‘Juncture’, standing at 213 x 183 cm, hammered down at £4.8 million, making £5.4 million including taxes and premium. Not quite the level of ‘Propped’ – an oil painting of the same size which sold in November for £9.5 million: an all-time record for a living female artist, but still an excellent representation of a fabulous artist. Marlene Dumas exceeded the £2 million mark, with ‘Magdalena’ reaching £2.3 million, while ‘Torso’ by Louise Bourgeois and ‘Midi’ by Bridget Riley reached £1.8 million each. In total, the evening sale had 13 artworks by 11 different female artists, making up almost 20% of the total gross profit.

Cecily Brown, 'Night Passage', 1999, oil on canvas, 254 x 279 cm

Christie’s had a much smaller representation of women artists, where six artists, and only six artworks, totalled £8.2 million in sales. But even this made up almost 10% of the sale total. Cecily Brown’s ‘Night Passage’ reached £3.1 million, and although not a record (‘Suddenly Last Summer’ from the same series reached £5.2 million in New York last year), an impressive over-estimate total. It was also the cover photo for the online auction site, showing its prominence in the sale. ‘Blue Michigan’ by Joan Mitchell just made estimate at £2.9 million, followed by a classic Bridget Riley piece at £1.1 million. So not quite the ‘girl power’ display of Sotheby’s, but promising nonetheless.

Rosemarie Trockel, 'Untitled', watercolour and ink on lined paper, 29.1 x 20.5 cm

My biggest surprise of the whole auction season so far was an untitled watercolour and ink work on paper by Rosemarie Trockel. Estimated at £4,000 - £6,000, the piece rocketed to £81,250. Not her most expensive piece (‘O.T’ sold in 2017 for £1.1 million), but for an artist made famous for her knitted paintings, this was certainly the biggest sale for one of her works on paper. This week, it was announced that Trockel is included in the 83 artists chosen to participate in this year’s Venice Biennale – one of the most prestigious exhibiting events in the art world, so maybe this sale comes as slightly less of a surprise based on this key fact.

So although the girls do not necessarily ‘rule the (art) world’ quite yet, this week’s sales are promising. Those female artists who are included in the biggest of the contemporary sales are reaching – and in some cases far exceeding – their estimates, and they make up some of the largest single sales of the auctions. What we need now is an increase in the number of pieces by female artists being included in the more high profile sales, and hopefully in the coming years we will see the number of big female names – not just Emin, Riley and Saville – creeping up towards the men.

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