Known for her gestural style, Joan Mitchell was a key member of the second generation of American Abstract Expressionists and is now among the leading market forces in the 20th century. She was unique among her contemporaries, having gained acclaim in the early 1950s at a time when recognition of women artists was sparse. Despite the critical attention, Mitchell’s oeuvre has long been undervalued next to the work of her male peers.
As the market exhausts its run with Mitchell’s New York school contemporaries, she is now being reevaluated as one of the last artists of the Ab-Ex generation yet to be fully explored, according to curators of her upcoming retrospective. From 2007 to 2019, her auction turnover has increased by 123% from $28 million in annual sales to $62.6 million. Her record price has followed that trend with an increase of 130% from $7 million achieved in 2007 to $16.6 million in 2018. With the rise in prices, the volume of Mitchell’s works traded at auction has also increased 130% since 2007.
Major recent surveys have solidified Mitchell’s reputation. The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) co-organized a major survey of the artist’s work which was first set to open in April 2020. The show was meant to be the first scholarly deep-dive into Joan Mitchell’s oeuvre. As such, it could contribute to further price milestones as major surveys of artists often do. Mitchell’s work in various media from the 1950s to 1992 and paintings from her early period that have rarely been seen publicly. In addition, Mitchell and her long-time partner, Jean-Paul Riopelle, were featured in a 2018 show at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. Mitchell was also the subject of solo exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Germany and at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria.
The Joan Mitchell Foundation, which houses a selection of the painters works, has played a central role in promoting scholarship and exhibitions of the artist’s work. David Zwirner officially took on representation of the Joan Mitchell estate in the Spring of 2018, just before the $16.6 million record sale of Blueberry in May of that year at Christie’s. Although the estate holds few remaining works, its representation by a major international dealer should have a positive effect on the artist’s prices.
The slow rise in global recognition of the artist’s legacy led to an inflection point in 2018. A monumental 1960 work titled 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock from the important Barney Ebsworth Collection (the work was also once owned by postwar painter Sam Francis) sold at Christie’s in November that year for $14 million. 2018 was also the first year Mitchell’s work was offered in an evening sale in Asia with the sale of Syrtis from 1961 for $7.2 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Prior to that her works had sold in Paris, London and New York.
Her market performance has increased at a relatively steady rate over the last decade, with a high total sold value of $51 million achieved in 2013. In 2018, this record was far exceeded, with Mitchell’s total auction turnover achieving the $83.9 million across 42 lots sold – the highest total to date. At Art Basel in June of 2018, an estimated $35.5 million sold in private deals.
In summer 2020 Mitchell’s market was further bolstered by the high-profile Ginny Williams collection sale at Sotheby’s. Mitchell’s La Grande Vallée VII was among the top lots in the collection selling for $14.6 million. Across the evening sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, five of Mitchell’s paintings dated from the 1950s to 1980s brought a total of $48.3 million. The result placed Mitchell as the 6th highest grossing artists across the modern and contemporary evening sales at the three top houses. Still, the Ebsworth and Williams private collection sales have not brought some of her most coveted mid-century examples that could significantly move up her auction record to $20 to $30 million.
Mitchell’s prices consistently perform within or below the estimate ranges, with 2007 being the only year the total hammer price for her sold works rose above the pre-sale high estimate. From 2007 to 2019, the trend-line is on a steady incline for her auction prices, showing a stable market performance. Following the 2008 market downturn, Mitchell’s prices suffered a sharp decline, which took until 2012 to recover, when her auction turnover rose from $17 million in 2011 to $29.8 million in 2012. Mitchell’s volatility has decreased overall in the last decade, remaining relatively low(at or below 5%) since 2016. In 2018 and 2019, each of Mitchell’s lots offered across the evening sales placed with buyers.
The graph above illustrates that on average, Mitchell’s works had leveled in performance between $1.5 and $4 million despite gradually rising estimates for a decade starting in 2007. 2018 broke this pattern, moving the average annual hammer price for a single-lot to around $5.5 million, a 175% increase from the prior year’s average price of $2 million. The result for 2019 shows this trend moving upward, establishing an even higher average price point of $6.5 million and marking the second consecutive year of Mitchell’s average hammer prices landing solidly within the pre-sale estimate range. Showing promise for the future, 2019 yielded the highest average top estimate achieved to date at $7.8 million.