2023 Auction Wrapped | Louise Bourgeois’ US$32.8m 'Spider' becomes the most expensive sculpture by a woman artist at auction

Demonstrating that women artists are rising to the forefront, recent years have seen a notably growing demand for their art, with more female artists represented at auctions worldwide and new records achieved one after another. 

In May 2023, French-American artist Louise Bourgeois' iconic, monumental bronze Spider sold for US$32.8 million at Sotheby's New York. The result not only marked an auction record for a sculpture by a female artist, but also edged out the artist's previous record of US$32.1 million set four years ago. It achieved the third highest price paid for an artwork by a woman artist at auction as well. 

Louise Bourgeois | Spider, Bronze (Auction record for the artist and a sculpture by a female artist)
Conceived and cast in 1996; number 1 from an edition of 6, plus 1 artist’s proof
337.8 x 668 x 632.5 cm
Sold: US$32,804,500
Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Auction Date: 18 May 2023

The record for an artwork by a woman artist at auction now stands at US$44.4 million, set by American artist Georgia O'Keeffe when her iconic floral painting, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, sold far above estimate at Sotheby's New York in 2014. 

Coming in second place is Frida Kahlo, whose Diego y yo fetched US$34.9 million in 2021, making it also the most valuable work of Latin American art ever sold at auction.

Top three prices ever achieved for a woman artist at auction: 

  1. Georgia O'Keeffe | Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, Oil on canvas | 121.9 x 101.6 cm | Sold: US$44,405,000, Sotheby's New York, 2014
  2. Frida Kahlo | Diego y yo, Oil on Masonite | 30 x 22.4cm | Sold: US$34,883,000, Sotheby's New York, 2021
  3. Louise Bourgeois | Spider, Bronze | 337.8 x 668 x 632.5 cm | Sold: US$32,804,500, Sotheby's New York, 2023

Georgia O'Keeffe | Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 | Sold: US$44,405,000, Sotheby's New York, 2014

Frida Kahlo | Diego y yo | Sold: US$34,883,000, Sotheby's New York, 2021

The French-American artist’s spiders have become a global icon, recognizable by all given its prominent presence in leading cultural institutions and major landmarks, including Tate Modern in London, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Roppongi Hills in Tokyo.

While many may find the monumental spider sculptures spine-chilling, Bourgeois likens these arachnids to her mother. During her childhood, the Bourgeois family lived comfortably in Paris and the countryside but her parents’ marital relationship was tense. As a child, she was aware of her father’s infidelity with her governess – a situation reluctantly accepted by her mother who eventually died after a long battle with Spanish flu.

Bourgeois pictured with the steel version of Spider IV, 1996

Bourgeois’ spider sculpture has become a landmark in Roppongi Hills in Tokyo

Bourgeois’ Untitled from the artist’s Ode a Ma Mere sketch series, 1995

These emotional struggles in Bourgeois’ early life had a profound impact on her creation. For her, spiders are evocative, speaking of childhood and a narrative of home, and they first appeared in her sketches as representations of a maternal, nurturing character. In 1995, she created a set of nine spider etchings, entitled Ode a Ma Mere (Poem to My Mother), and was later quoted in an article:

“The friend (the spider – why the spider?) because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me…”

Though the Spider series has become Bourgeois’ most well-known motif and been exhibited around the globe, these sculptures have only appeared at auction a few times, with six recorded sales in the past 10 years.

In 2022, her 2-metre Spider IV sculpture sold for HK$129.2 million (US$16.5 million) during Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring Sale, becoming the most valuable sculpture ever sold in Asia.

Bourgeois’ Spider IV broke the Asian auction record for a sculpture at HK$129.2 million | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2022

The present lot

Details of the present lot

Conceived and casted in 1996, the present lot is one of the six limited editions of Spider, with one artist’s proof, created by Bourgeois. Shortly following its execution that same year, the work featured in a salon dedicated to the French artist in the 23rd Bienal de São Paulo and was acquired by the Itaú Cultural Institute.

Since then, the bronze sculpture remained on permanent display at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art and has been loaned and exhibited extensively across esteemed institutions in South America for more than two decades. The proceedings of the sale will benefit cultural activities of the Fundacāo Itaú of São Paulo.