Booming secondary market interest in women artists: myth or reality?

In the past year or so, we have seen most major fine art auctions opening with Australia’s favourite early to mid-century female artists. Indeed, Leonard Joel have been running dedicated women artists auctions since 2017 and announced their fifth edition of the event for 20th October, while Bonhams in their 24 August sale of Important Australian art have reserved the first seven lots for Dorrit Black, Janet Cumbrae-Stewart, Clarice Beckett, May Gibbs and Florence Fuller, as a case in point. 

Deutscher + Hackett go one further by marketing their important fine art sale scheduled for 29 September as “Twenty Important Women Artists and Selected Australian and International Fine Art”, putting women very much at the forefront of current auctions.

We expect Smith & Singer to offer a good selection of important women artists in their next major sale scheduled for 22 September, and Menzies’ November sale will no doubt also be heavily weighted with the current female stars that collectors are so keen on.

Is the booming interest in the secondary market in women artists grounded in real dollar figures or simply a myth?

Del Kathryn Barton's "Of Pollen" sold for the
artist's record price of $378,000 in May 2018 with Sotheby's Australia.

We’ve analysed the auction results published in the Australian Art Sales Digest for the top 25 women artists by average price for paintings and watercolours for the three-year period from 2009 to 2011 and then compared these with the average prices for the same artists for the three years from 2018 to 2020. (For this overview, we did not include Indigenous artists). The results were very revealing.

The figures speak clearly of a flourishing secondary market for women artists: the overall increase in average price for an artwork between the two periods was 46% (from $16,681 to $24,352), and total sales increased even more, by 54% (from $8,331 million to $12,798 million).

Looking at artists from the first half of the 20th century, it will be no surprise to even casual observers of the Australian art auction market that Clarice Beckett’s average prices have risen some 51% in this time, leading to an increase in overall turnover from $379,000 to $635,500.

Bessie Davidson’s average prices at auction have grown even more from $14,765 to $28,008, representing an extraordinary increase of 90%.

Margaret Preston’s average price for an artwork for the earlier period was $49,700, and has risen by 80% to $89,614 for 2018-2020, with total sales of $985,750 against $248,600 ten years ago, demonstrating the big demand from big collectors.

Likewise, and to an even greater extent, Grace Cossington Smiths’ $29,557 average price in 2009-2011 has seen an increase of 173% to $80,666, with total sales in the previous period of $620,700 and now $1.29 million, making her work some of the most highly regarded and sought after in Australia today.

Moving on to the second half of the 20th century, the status quo has more or less been maintained for Nora Heysen, whose average price has dropped slightly by 9% to $12,315 from an average $13,534, while total turn-over from 2009-2011 was $473,705 based on 35 sales, and $517,250 based on 42 sales for 2018-2020.

Joy Hester’s work has seen a very substantial increase from an average price of $7,313 in 2009-2011 to $42,900 for 2018-2020, representing the biggest rise of them all of 487%.

Prices for legendary Melbourne icon Mirka Mora have almost doubled, from $4,357 to $8,144 in 2018-2020, a growth of 87%.  Total sales in 2009-2011 of $187,350 have more than tripled to $602,625, perhaps pointing to a much wider audience for the artist’s work beyond Victoria’s borders.

Margaret Olley’s prices have also seen improvement over this period, from an average of $33,946 to $40,019, up 18%, and significant sales of $1.459 million and $1.44 million on sales of 43 and 36 paintings respectively.

The abstract works of Yvonne Audette have also enjoyed more appreciation, with not only an increase in average value of 24%, but almost triple the total sales from $270,000 based on 10 works in 2009-2011 to $767,000 for the 2018-2020 period, based on 23 artworks.

Of the contemporary artists, Del Kathryn Barton’s work has seen an increase of average prices of 206%, and unsurprisingly to most observers, total sales of $554,500 in the 2009-2011 period have risen more than fivefold to $2.647 million.

Article originally published in Australian Art Sales Digest, 22 August 2021