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Bidders Overflow Swann’s First African-American Art Auction

The inaugural Feb. 6 sale of African-American fine art at New York’s Swann Auction Galleries produced $2.4 million for 222 lots, falling in the middle of the presale estimate of $2/2.96 million.

NEW YORK—The inaugural Feb. 6 sale of African-American fine art at New York’s Swann Auction Galleries produced $2.4 million for 222 lots, falling in the middle of the presale estimate of $2/2.96 million.

Perhaps more importantly, suggests Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s new African-American fine art department, the sale generated auction results for a variety of artists whose works are rarely showcased in public sales. “This segment of the art market has been neglected, and it was our intention to show the achievements not just of the big names but of other artists whose work is very deserving of attention,” Freeman told ARTnewsletter.

He reports that more than 300 people were present for the sale, requiring the use of a second room (and a second auctioneer) to relay bids; the event took place just two days after the close of the 11th annual National Black Fine Art Show. “We benefited from scheduling,” he says, pointing out that 88 percent of the lots were purchased.

The top sale prices at the auction were $156,000 for Jacob Lawrence’s portfolio of 22 color screenprints, The Legend of John Brown, 1977 (estimate $130,000/160,000); and $120,000 for Elizabeth Catlett’s carved-mahogany sculpture Nude Torso, 1976 (estimate: $100,000/150,000). “This is the first time a Catlett sculpture has come up at auction anywhere,” Freeman says.

Winning bidders tended not to stray too far from the auctioneer’s estimates, although there were some surprises, including the $43,200 given for Kara Walker’s 1995 Kneeling Silhouette, a paper cutout mounted on cotton canvas, painted black, which bore a $7,000/10,000 estimate. “That was the biggest jump from estimate to final bid,” says Freeman. “People jumped at the chance to own a Kara Walker.”

Other noteworthy sales: $96,000, for Hale Aspacio Woodruff’s oil-on-canvas Totem, circa 1950-54 (estimate: $30,000/50,000); $67,200, for Norman Lewis’ Street Music, 1950 (estimate: $20,000/30,000); and $28,800, for Beauford Delaney’s Untitled (Portrait of a Young Black Woman), circa 1950 (estimate: $6,000/9,000).

‘An Historic Moment’

Manhattan art dealer June Kelly, whose gallery exhibits the works of numerous African-American artists, calls the Swann sale “an historic moment in the history of African-American art. No auction house has ever had a sale of this kind, with so many African-American artists under one roof.”

“The Swann auction was uneven in terms of quality,” reports Manhattan gallery owner Michael Rosenfeld, who bought the Lewis oil Street Music. He further acquired a Romare Bearden collage, Untitled (Four Figures), ca. 1967-70, for $48,000 (estimate: $50,000/70,000). “There was a handful of really good art,” he observes, “but I thought what I paid for were bargains.”

In all, Swann reports, auction records were set for 20 artists, including Camille Billops, Ernest Crichlow, Robert Blackburn, Samuel J. Brown, Catlett, Sam Gilliam, Hughie Lee-Smith, Lewis, Lloyd McNeil, Keith Morrison, Vincent Smith, Charles White, Walter Williams, Woodruff and Hartwell Yeargans.

Freeman says a mix of dealers, museums and private collectors were in attendance. “Some things didn’t sell,” he acknowledges, but “we’re still developing some parts of this market.”

Some of the buy-ins were among the highest- estimated lots, including Lawrence’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture series,1986-97 (estimate: $130,000/160,000).

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