The Mei Moses report on the rising value of women artists pushes one data nerd’s buttons.
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
New Data on the Market for Female Artists
One of the key strategic initiatives at Sotheby’s over the last two years has been to tack away from the very top of the art market in favor of promoting the value of artists who have been heretofore slighted or overlooked. Building on record prices for African American artists like Sam Gilliam, Kerry James Marshall and Barkley Hendricks, as well as African artists like Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Sotheby’s sponsored a broad research project on the representation of artists of color in museums and the market that was published last September.
In the run up to another research project, this time on female artists, that Sotheby’s has sponsored, the auction house led with another data point. The Mei Moses Index, which Sotheby’s acquired in 2016, published its own study of the repeat sales of work by women artists. The initiative follows Sotheby’s head of Contemporary art Gregoire Billault’s success selling Lee Krasner’s The Eye is the first circle (1960) in May for $11.7m (est. $10m-$15m) to Emily and Mitchell Rales’s Glenstone private museum. That sale which doubled Krasner’s previous record transaction of $5.5m in 2017 was surely one of the matched pairs that would make Mei Moses’s case.
Sotheby’s intention, no doubt, was to use data to describe a savvy, prescient and even advantageous market around that sale—and the future sales of women artists. But even Sotheby’s could not have hoped to have the kind of headlines—“A New Study Has Simple Advice for Collectors Looking for Big Returns on Art: Invest In Women”—that followed.
For the record, the study says many things. It hints that there may be future returns available to buyers of art made by women. Sotheby’s may even hope you’ll make that inference. But it doesn’t say invest in art by women to get big returns. With a study based upon paired sales, there is a powerful selection bias that skews the results toward a very small group of artists with previous auction sales. Women artists who have previously sold well doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as an investment category but that would be a more accurate description of the group being analyzed here.
Before you start snapping up work by artists who happen to be women on the hopes of making a killing, remember the study doesn’t say that the market is primed for big gains in the future. Indeed, what the study does say is that the best time to buy work by female artists was 2012.
For those following the art market over the last decade, the research Mei Moses conducted mostly reveals the obvious. Which isn’t to say that the research is unnecessary or irrelevant. Rather, anyone involved in the art market during that same six-year period would have told you the same thing: the time was right to buy high quality work by undervalued artists. There were many more historically undervalued artists who were women than who were men. This is demonstrated in the numbers Mei Moses published.
The All Art-Female (AAF) index, which is comprised of 2,472 repeat sales by 499 female artists, increased by 72.9% between 2012 and 2018. Essentially, this means that a work by a female artist bought in 2012 would, on average, be worth 72.9% more if sold in 2018. In contrast, the All Art-Male (AAM) index (which comprises 55,706 repeat sales by 8,477 male artists) increased by 8.3% over that same period—65% less than the AAF index. This is in contrast to the previous 50 years in which the resale markets for both male and female artists performed roughly in parallel (albeit at different volumes).
Let’s decode that a little. There were 17-times more male artists in the study than female artists. There were 22.5-times more sales of work by men recorded and used for the study than by women. Those numbers obviously reflect the historical bias towards men being able to work as professional artists. Whatever the source of the disparity in numbers, we have to acknowledge that the sample sizes are quite different. Different sample sizes result in numbers with different . The sample size for men makes those numbers more broadly representative of the entire market; the sample size for women makes those number more is inherently more dependent upon individual factors related to the artists themselves than to their being classified as male and female.
These numbers also reflect somewhat the historical context of the art market in the years after the global financial crisis. The recovery period from 2009 to 2011 which launched what Tobias Meyer called at the time, the masterpiece market, also provoked a search for value. Art had unexpectedly become an appreciating asset during a period of deflation fears and financial instability. This new recognition of art as a store of financial as well as cultural value sparked a search for more artists whose work could become a store of value. There was a brief period in 2014 when the market focused on young artists just emerging in the marketplace but that vogue for a group of mostly abstract formalist process-focused artists was brief. Market participants sought something more stable built on a solid historical foundation. Smart secondary market dealers sought out the estates of historically significant artists or artists who were still working at an advanced age and had substantial careers already behind them. Female artists tended to be overlooked more than many, but not all, men.
Price Does Not Equal Value
Describing the historic period from 2012 to 2018, Mei Moses has done a great service providing real data to back up the lived experience of many dealers, collectors and market observers. Living through the fog of the market, most participants were following the clues these prices left along the way. Carmen Herrera’s market is a good case in point.
Price is a signal of value. What Mei Moses has done here is boost the signal. Markets distribute value through the call and response of prices, the bid and the ask. In the art market, where prices are mostly determined by demand (this is why you see dealers bidding on the works of their artists) those signals are accompanied by a great deal of noise. (For example, low prices in other markets are buying signals. In the art market, low prices can dissipate demand rather than attract it.)
The important thing here is that Mei Moses is revealing what happened in retrospect. Yes, there’s a good chance that the markets for a number of different artists who are women will continue to rise. There are surely a number of different male artists whose markets will rise in the future too. Betting on a woman because she’s a woman might give you a greater shot at making money. But it might not too. Remember that sample size. It’s pretty small.
Although we can assume the differential rise in value is caused by the market’s new receptivity to women artists, the report’s author also chose to make some speculative attempts at explaining why. This speculation drew an immediate and sharp reaction from at least one observer.
Revenge of the Art Nerds
Jason Bailey, a self-described art nerd, writes at Artnome where he dissects the interaction of data and art both in the market and among the emerging group of artists using machine learning to create images. Bailey read the Mei Moses report and did a virtual spit-take when he read this passage explaining the rise in value of work by women:
When the market runs out of art produced by its superstars, it tends to move onto related areas for supply —whether reassessing new bodies of work by an artist […] or moving onto other artists within a movement.