Louise Bourgeois’ huge bronze Spider sculpture fetches record US$32.8m in New York

Setting another record during this season's New York Sales week, French-American artist Louise Bourgeois's towering 3.3-metre bronze sculpture, Spider, sold for US$32.8 million in its auction debut on 18 May at Sotheby's New York.

The result marked a new auction record for the artist, as well as an auction record for a sculpture by a woman artist. It is also the third highest price paid for a woman artist at auction. 

The previous auction record for Bourgeois was set in 2019, when a 3.2-metre Spider, casted from the same edition, garnered US$32 million at Christie's New York.

Auctioneer Oliver Barker hammered Louise Bourgeois’s Spider down at US$30 million

Lot 105 | Louise Bourgeois | Spider, Bronze
Conceived and casted in 1996; number 1 from an edition of 6, plus 1 artist’s proof
337.8 x 668 x 632.5 cm

  • Galerie Karsten Greve, Cologne
  • Acquired from the above in 1996 by the present owner

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer Price: US$30,000,000
Sold: US$32,804,500

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

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.

Last year, 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 Asian record for a sculpture at HK$129.2 million | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2022

The present lot

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. 

After at least five lots withdrawn, all 27 lots offered at Sotheby's Contemporary Evening Auction in New York found new buyers, bringing in a combined total of US$167.5 million. 

In addition to Spider, the night's spotlight were on a rare monochromatic painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gerhard Richter's grand Color Chart painting, both selling above US$20 million.

Judging from the bidding atmosphere, both Spider and Basquiat's Now's the Time were presumably sold to their third-party backers.

Charlie Parker (right) was one of Basquiat's favourite jazz singers

Lot 116 | Jean-Michel Basquiat | Now's the Time, Acrylic and oilstick on wood
Executed in 1985
234.3 x 236.9 cm

  • Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above in March 1996 by the present owner

Expected to fetch in the region of US$30,000,000
Hammer Price: US$25,500,000
Sold: US$28,634,000

One of Basquiat's most visually simplistic artwork, Now's the Time is the artist's monumental ode to jazz music and legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Measuring 234.3 x 236.9 cm, the painting replicates the vinyl pressing of Parker's 1945 composition of the same name.

Despite adopting a minimalistic palette, Basquiat sacrificed none of the swagger and spirit behind his pithy linguistic arsenal, with his idol's name being transformed into shorthand "PRKR" which mirrors his street tagging alter-ego SAMO.

Lot 112 | Gerhard Richter | 4096 Farben, Lacquer on canvas
Executed in 1974
254 x 254 cm
Provenance (Edited by The Value):

  • Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich
  • Private Collection, New York
  • Galerie Wilkens-Jacobs, Cologne
  • Jerry and Emily Spiegel, New York (acquired from the above) 
  • Christie's, New York, 11 May 2004, lot 34 (consigned by the above; Sold: US$3,703,500)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$18,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer Price: US$20,500,000
Sold: US$21,839,000

Gerhard Richter first alighted on the Color Chart concept in 1966, after he was inspired by the color cards he found in paint stores and thought them to be already perfect pictures. 

Regarding the present work, the artist himself explained, "In order to represent all extant color shades in one painting, I worked out a system which – starting from the three primaries, plus grey – made possible a continual subdivision (differentiation) through equal gradations. 4 x 4 = 16 x 4 = 64 x 4 = 256 x 4 = 1024. The multiplier 4 was necessary because I wanted to keep the image size, the square size and the number of squares in a constant proportion to each other.’"

4096 Farben later served as the template for Richter's magnificent Cologne Cathedral Window, which he designed by directly referencing the chromaticity of the present work. It was also chosen as the cover of the artist's Catalogue Raisonné.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 110 | Wayne Thiebaud | Candy Counter, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1969
120.7 x 91.8 cm

  • Family of the artist
  • Paul Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner 

Estimate: US$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer Price: US$12,500,000
Sold: US$14,697,000

Lot 115 | Blinky Palermo | Ohne Titel, Dyed cotton mounted on muslin (Auction record for the artist)
Executed in 1970
200 x 200 cm

  • Galerie Onnasch, Berlin 
  • Private Collection, Germany (acquired from the above in 1970)
  • Thence by descent in 1996 to the present owner

Estimate: US$3,500,000 - 4,500,000
Hammer Price: US$5,200,000
Sold: US$6,309,300

Lot 109 | Ad Reinhardt | Red Painting, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Executed in 1953
102.9 x 102.9 cm

  • Waddington Gallery, London
  • Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kaye, Rumford
  • Pace Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above in 1990 by the present owner

Estimate: US$3,000,000 - 5,000,000
Hammer Price: US$2,800,000
Sold: US$3,250,000

Lot 106 | Howardena Pindell | Untitled, Acrylic on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Executed in 1971
199 x 250 cm

  • The artist 
  • Garth Greenan Gallery, New York 
  • Victoria Miro, London
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$500,000 - 700,000
Hammer Price: US$1,300,000
Sold: US$1,633,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Contemporary Evening Auction
Date: 18 May 2023
Number of Lots: 27
Sold: 27
Sale Rate: 100%
Sale Total: US$167,453,500