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Much African-American Art Rolls Over Estimates at Swann

Swann Galleries’ second auction of African-American art on Oct. 4 produced $1.4 million in total sales, against an estimated $1.06/1.5 million, with 87 of the 94 lots (92 percent) finding buyers. All the artworks (paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture) in the sale came from the collection of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, Los

NEW YORK—Swann Galleries’ second auction of African-American art on Oct. 4 produced $1.4 million in total sales, against an estimated $1.06/1.5 million, with 87 of the 94 lots (92 percent) finding buyers. All the artworks (paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture) in the sale came from the collection of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, Los Angeles.

The top-selling work was Charles White’s General Moses (Harriet Tubman), a Chinese ink drawing on two joined sheets of illustration board that bore an estimate of $200,000/250,000 and won $360,000 from a phone bidder.

The next-highest price was for Hughie Lee-Smith’s painting Slum Song, which took $216,000 (estimate: $40,000/60,000) from a buyer in the room. Both prices set auction records for the respective artists, Nigel Freeman, head of Swann’s African-American fine art department told ARTnewsletter. He notes that works by these artists never brought more than $50,000 previously. Bidding was “very active” in the auction gallery, Freeman says, as well as over the phone.

Back in February Swann’s first African-American art sale realized $2.4 million for 222 lots offered. Afterward “we were contacted by Golden State because they had been thinking about changing the direction of their art collecting,” said Freeman. That earlier sale, he says, “which included a number of artists whose works had never been offered at auction before, “excited a lot of people who owned some of this material or wanted to. Works are being brought out of the closet.”

At the recent sale in October, other top prices included: $144,000, for White’s ink-on-board The Brother, more than double the $60,000 high estimate; $96,000, for John Biggers’ Market Women, Ghana, which was under the $100,000 low estimate; $72,000, for Henry Ossawa Tanner’s oil Seated Arab, which was above the $50,000 high estimate; and a within-estimate $64,800, for David Hammons’ screenprint Moving to the Other Side (estimate: $60,000/90,000).

A surprise star of the sale was Beulah Woodard (1895-1955), a Los Angeles painter and sculptor whose works had not been sold at auction before—Swann’s Freeman said he had not heard of the artist before appraising the collection.

Woodard’s works in this sale consistently exceeded estimates. Her 1935 painting African Woman fetched $19,200, more than six times the $3,000 high estimate; her 1937-38 bronze Maudelle earned $14,400 (estimate: $7,000/10,000); and a 1937 bronze, Bad Boy, made $13,475 (estimate: $6,000/9,000).

Much of the Golden State collection had been acquired during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Some works in the sale came from artists who were contemporary at the time—among them, Alonzo Davis (b. 1942), Charles Dickson (b. 1947), Margo Humphrey (b. 1942) and John Simmons (b. 1950). They found buyers, but not at very high prices and often below the low estimates.

However, while two sculptures by John T. Riddle Jr. (1934-2002) both went for less than anticipated, six others met or exceeded estimates—among them an oil and collage on two joined canvases, Dominoes, 1973, which sailed past its $9,000 high estimate to earn $15,600.

Additionally, three drawings by Richard Wyatt Jr. (b. 1955) all exceeded their estimates, most notably Sister Wyatt, 1979, which won $18,000, more than a dozen times the high estimate of $1,500. Golden State, Freeman said, plans to use some of the sale profits to acquire contemporary African-American art.

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