Female artists are underrepresented in the art world — and their paintings fetch significantly less at auctions

May 2, 2021
Female artists' paintings sell for less, and they are underrepresented at prestigious exhibitions. (Marie Lucie Nessi-Valtat’s Vase de fleurs au pichet vert)

Female artists' paintings sell for less, and they are underrepresented at prestigious exhibitions. (Marie Lucie Nessi-Valtat’s Vase de fleurs au pichet vert)

Paintings by female artists on average sell for 42.1% less than the average price for paintings by men, according to a new study that is the first to focus on prices as a measure of inequality in the art world.

Using data from the Blouin Art Sales Index to compile nearly 1.9 million auction transactions across 49 countries, the study, published April 9 in The Review of Financial Studies, found that the average transaction price for female artists is $29,235, while the average transaction price for male artists is about $50,480, after controlling for factors that could influence the price, such as the size of the painting. 

The researchers also examined gender inequality in individual countries by using the United Nations Gender Inequality Index and the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, among other sources. Using this data, the researchers found that the price disparity for paintings by women was greater in countries with higher gender inequality compared to countries with lower gender inequality. Even the same paintings sold in different countries fetched lower prices if sold in a country with higher gender inequality, according to the researchers. 

When gender inequality is high according to the UN Gender Inequality Index, the "gender price discount" is 34.22%, the researchers wrote; when gender inequality is low, the "discount" is only 6.81%.

The "law of one price" states that in efficient markets, the same goods should fetch the same price no matter where they are sold, according to Renée Adams, a co-author of the paper and professor of finance at the University of Oxford. 

However, since female artists fetch lower prices at auctions generally, and because this is exacerbated in countries with higher gender inequality, auction prices of paintings are acting as a function of culture — a function that is biased against female artists.

"If price is a function of culture, then what does the price mean?" Adams said. "It doesn't mean anything necessarily about the intrinsic value of the good. It's not just about art; it's also about who painted it."

The researchers ruled out the possibility that artwork by women is intrinsically different or inferior to artwork by males. While there is some gender imbalance in art topics — for example, female artists tend to produce more artwork with flowers than men, who in turn are more likely to paint landscapes — the researchers found that topics considered "feminine" actually command a premium price, not a discount. 

The researchers conducted two experiments to test the findings of the auction data and to determine if women's art sells less because it is made by a female artist. The researchers used SurveyMonkey Audience services to identify a sample representative of the U.S. population in terms of gender, age, income and geographical distribution for two experiments; the first experiment elicited responses from 880 people, while the second experiment had responses from 1,823 people.

In the first experiment, the researchers used a sample of 10 paintings, five from male artists and five from female artists. To maintain neutrality, the researchers used the first 10 paintings from their auction data sample at the beginning of 2013. Participants were first asked to guess the gender of the artist based on the painting, and then were asked to rate how much they liked the painting on a scale of 0-10, with higher values indicating positive reception.

Participants guessed that the artist was male 62.7% of the time, showing that respondents expect a higher incidence of male painters in comparison to female painters. Overall, however, participants guessed the gender of the artist correctly at 50.5% of the time, making their guesses statistically indistinguishable from random. 

The only painting that a significant majority of respondents guessed was painted by a female artist was a painting of a vase of flowers — Marie-Lucie Nessi-Valtat's "Vase de fleurs au pichet vert" — which reinforced the idea that "feminine" topics in artwork are thought to be produced by women.  

On average, respondents said they liked paintings they thought were painted by women, reinforcing the idea that topics considered to be "feminine" command a premium, not a discount. However, affluent male respondents who said they often visit art galleries appreciated paintings less when they believed the artist to be a woman. For these male respondents, the perceived femininity of the painter was associated with a 12.9% decrease from the average score, according to the researchers.

Since affluent males who visit art galleries are most similar to the typical bidder in an art auction, researchers said this finding is consistent with the hypothesis that, "Women's art sells for less because it is made by women." 

In the second experiment, respondents were again asked to rate how much they liked 10 paintings on a 0-10 scale, but this time respondents were shown random paintings by an artificial system based on a deep neural network that creates high-quality artistic images. Five of these paintings were attributed to random male names and the other five were randomly attributed to female names.

The researchers found that, on average, female artists' names were unrelated to respondents' appreciation of those paintings. However, similar to the first experiment, the researchers found that affluent respondents had a lower appreciation — a decrease of 6% — for works associated with female names, and this is especially pronounced if those respondents reported visiting art galleries.

Adams said, though, that due to budget constraints, these experiments "could have been done better," and while the findings generally reinforce what the researchers saw in their analysis of the auction data, the researchers were limited in what they could do. 

"The experiments are suggestive, but are not conclusive," Adams said. 

The researchers point out that women are generally underrepresented in the art world, with not a single female artist appearing in an edition of H.W. Janson's History of Art, a definitive art history book, until 1987. Moreover, female artists make up 16.4% of the population of artists but account for only 7.4% of transactions, according to the researchers. 

"It's sort of noticeable when you go to museums and you see the art world — it's mostly male-dominated," Adams said. When asked about recommendations moving forward, Adams had a simple proposal: "People should buy more art by women."

The study "Gendered prices," published April 9 in The Review of Financial Studies, was co-authored by Renée Adams, University of Oxford; Roman Kräussl, University of Luxembourg and Stanford University; Marco Navone, University Technology Sydney; and Patrick Verwijmeren, Erasmus School of Economics and University of Melbourne.

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