Margaret Eby
November 24, 2014 12:26 pm

The gender pay gap (across all fields) is a subject of much debate and frustration — as well it should be! But one facet of gender inequality that’s little discussed is the art valuation gap.

The most money ever paid for a painting by a male artist was in 2013, a record-setting $142.5 million for Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” The highest number paid for a painting by a female artist? $11.9 million, for an untitled painting by Joan Mitchell. That gap is huge. For those of you playing along at home, that means there’s more than a $130 million difference between the highest amount of money paid for a piece of work by a man, than a piece of work by a woman.

That was until Thursday, when a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” was sold at auction for $44 million, shattering the previous record. In fact, it quadrupled the former mark

To give the SparkNotes on O’Keeffe and why her work could be worth so much, she was an American painter at the beginning of the 20th century. Much of her work is closeups of blossoms and she’s credited as being the “Mother of American Modernism.”

The sale is a great step forward for the gender pay gap in the art world, but let’s put it in perspective: According to fivethirtyeight, the art sale “record” gap is now 31 cents for every painting by a female artist, for every dollar paid for a painting by a male artist. Before the O’Keefe sale? It was eight cents to the dollar. Both are crazy, one is a little better than the other.

Money isn’t the only area in the art world where women are under-represented. The canon, you’ll see, is heavily littered with male artists, as are the museums. Countless articles have asked the question about under-representation of female artists in museums with headlines like, “Where Are All the Women?”

The financial inequality is only what’s evident from public art auctions, since private art sales aren’t often on the record. It’s still there, though, certainly. But with artworks getting ever-higher prices, perhaps the gap, enormous as it may be, is narrowing. And that’s good news for painters, art historians, and women all around.

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