Paula Rego ‘masterpiece’ may set record for artist at Sotheby’s auction

<span>Paula Rego’s Meadow will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s on Tuesday.</span><span>Photograph: Michael Bowles/Sotheby's</span>
Paula Rego’s Meadow will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s on Tuesday.Photograph: Michael Bowles/Sotheby's

A “masterpiece” by Paula Rego is set to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s next week and could set a new record for the artist.

Rego’s challenging work about abortion, gender roles and domestic violence has found new audiences in an era when identity is king. Since her death in 2022 the record price for one of her works at auction has risen significantly, jumping from £1.1m in 2015 to a new record of just over £3m at Christie’s in October last year.

Meadow, which is on the market for the first time since it was bought in 1997 after her Marlborough gallery show in New York, could better that on Tuesday with a top-end initial estimate of about £3m.

Emma Baker, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art evening sale, called the work a “masterpiece” and typical of Rego’s love of playing with gender roles, while also referencing art history, specifically Cézanne’s Scipio.

She thinks the interest in Rego is aligned with a more general societal shift, which has seen issues of female empowerment, the #MeToo movement and the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US force her themes into the mainstream.

Related: Dame Paula Rego obituary

“Some of her pictures are tough, especially those that confront images of abortion,” said Baker. “But attitudes to the hard-hitting themes and topics are changing. Over the last decade there’s been a real shift and these issues are being brought to light; these are at the forefront of our contemporary dialogue.”

The auction is the latest milestone in a career resurgence for Rego, who, since her death, has become not only a sought-after artist on the market but the subject of several major exhibitions.

Shortly before her death, Rego had a career retrospective at Tate Britain in 2021. Later this year there is another major exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel, her first on Swiss soil. At the same time, the Holburne Museum is hosting a show featuring Rego’s work alongside that of Francisco de Goya, called Uncanny Visions.

Chris Stephens, the director of the Holburne Museum said there had been a huge shift in interest towards not just Rego’s work but that of other female artists who tackled themes of identity.

Stephens said when he worked at Tate in 2004 there was a conversation about hosting a major Rego show. Ultimately, it was decided to put on something smaller, with the overriding opinion being her work felt too niche.

“Now the art world has a more eclectic set of values in terms of what we think is good,” said Stephens. “Twenty years ago when the YBAs were at their peak, figurative artists dealing with allegorical subjects seemed a bit old-fashioned.”

Born in 1935 in Portugal, Rego moved to London in the 1950s to attend the Slade School of Fine Art, where she became part of the London Group alongside David Hockney and Frank Auerbach.

Her early work was often overtly political and addressed the Portuguese dictator Salazar and his regime, while later work delved into fairytales, gender and, famously, abortion. The Abortion Series in 1988, which depicted the dangers of criminalising abortion, were made in response to a botched legislative referendum in Portugal and are regarded as a key turning point in altering opinions on the subject in the country.

Related: ‘These women are not victims’ – Paula Rego’s extraordinary Abortion series

Rego’s complex work returned to the themes of trauma and oppression, but she was also inspired by Walt Disney films and was an avid supporter of Benfica football club.

As one gallerist said after her death: “She’s always been on it and we’ve been behind.” But being at the vanguard of artistic expression did not mean Rego was popular with collectors.

Her themes of trauma, abortion and violence created challenging, explicit work that some collectors found “more suited to a museum setting than above the dining room table”, according to one writer.

But Baker believes that tastes have changed, and now collectors and institutions are more open to her challenging work. “Her time has come,” said Baker.

“She’s an artist that is gaining the reputation as a major figure from the last century. Her facility and talent as a painter of the figure is undeniable and there aren’t really any other artists of the time like that.”

  • Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary Evening Sale is on 25 June; Uncanny Visions: Paula Rego and Francisco de Goya is at the Holburne Museum from 27 September 2024–5 January 2025