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Sotheby’s London (Women) Artists

March 21, 2023

A painting showing two black, rocky outcroppings flanking the sides rising up, pulling all attention towards a small, brown bird with its wings extended against a red and blue sky, probably either at dawn or dusk.

L'Esprit Saint by Jane Graverol

On Thursday March 16th, Sotheby’s London hosted a short but very interesting sale dedicated completely to female artists creatively called “(Women) Artists”. The fifty-four available lots came from many different artists and creators across many styles and periods, including works by Louise Bourgeois, Leonor Fini, Yayoi Kusama, Kara Walker, and Mary Cassatt. The sale’s organizers promised to “offer original perspectives, initiate innovative dialogues and generate fresh appreciation for each work presented.” (w/p = with buyer’s premium)

That day’s top lot was also one of that day’s biggest surprises. L’Esprit Saint by Jane Graverol is a 1965 oil on canvas painting measuring 24.75 by 21.25 inches. Graverol is probably one of the best-known female artists within surrealism, but there’s not much of the overtly surreal in this work at first glance. Rocky black outcroppings rise on each side of the work, directing all attention onto a small bird against a warm, cloudy sky. However, the rock structures and the bird create a blank space in the form of a nude female body. The title of the work, literally meaning Holy Spirit, is in reference to the bird. Birds in flight, often doves, are a common symbol of the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost in Christian iconography. However, while white doves projecting rays of light most often symbolize the Holy Spirit, Graverol chose a more common-looking reddish-brown bird, similar to a sparrow, as her sacred symbol. Though estimated to sell for no more than £80K, that day’s bidders fought until the hammer came down at £400K / $483.5K (or £508K / $614K w/p), exactly five times the high estimate.

A symmetrical design of red, blue, and gray squares and rectangles against a framed white background.

Composition verticale-horizontale by Jean Arp (After Sophie Taeuber-Arp)

Only a couple of lots later, the sale came to its second-place work. Composition verticale-horizontale was originally created by Sophie Taeuber-Arp around 1928 as a work on paper. It was part of Taeuber-Arp’s designs for her remodeling of the Aubette building in Strasbourg. However, the work sold at Sotheby’s on Thursday is not the original. The Sotheby’s lot is an oil painting on wood relief created between 1943 and 1956 by Taeuber-Arp’s husband and fellow artist Jean Arp. Taeuber-Arp died from a carbon monoxide leak in 1943, and her husband spent much of his life promoting her oeuvre and legacy, including recreating some of her works. In many of Jean Arp’s recreations, he almost always created an enlarged version identical to the original in its design and a second version that served as more of a reinterpretation. The work offered at Sotheby’s is one of the former, an exact copy of the original work on paper. Sotheby’s specialists predicted the work to sell for between £140K and £180K, with the final bid falling nicely in between at £160K / $193.4K (or £203.2K / $245.6K w/p). And finally, in third place was Marie Vassilieff’s cubist-inspired L’Enfant au poisson. Vassilieff was one of the first modernist artists from the Russian Empire to emigrate to Paris, moving there around 1905. She studied under Henri Matisse and later founded her own art school, where she recruited her friend Fernand Léger to teach classes. Though not as intimately involved in the cubist movement as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Vassilieff was heavily influenced by cubism, as shown by this portrait of a girl with a fish created around 1920. The painting hit its low estimate, selling for £80K / $96.7K (or £101.6K / $122.8K w/p).

A cubist portrait of a young child holding a fish, with the room in the background rendered in a blocky, geometric style.

L'Enfant au poisson by Marie Vassilieff

Of course, the Graverol work was a great surprise coming out on top, but there was another surprise early in the sale. An untitled work by Miriam Cahn is a study in pink and blue, forming a covered face with two deep, dark eyes staring back at the viewer. The oil on canvas painting was created around 1995 and was estimated to sell for no more than £8K. Like the Graverol painting, the Cahn sold for five times its estimate at £40K / $48.35K (or £50.8K / $61.4K w/p). The (Women) Artists sale did incredibly well, with seventeen of the fifty-four available lots selling within their estimates, giving Sotheby’s specialists a 31% accuracy rate. Seven lots (13%) sold below estimate, while twelve (22%) sold above. For a sale that did as well as it did, an unusual amount went unsold – eighteen lots, or about 33%. Graverol’s L’Esprit Saint selling for as much as it did certainly helped bring the total hammer price up to £1,219,300 / $1,473,817. This was on the higher end of the presale total estimate range, with the minimum being £902K.