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Lewis Painting Leads Swann African American Art Sale

An untitled early 1960s abstract painting by Norman Lewis (1909–1979) topped Swann Galleries’ Oct. 7 sale of African American fine art, selling for $312,000 including premium.

NEW YORK—An untitled early 1960s abstract painting by Norman Lewis (1909–1979) topped Swann Galleries’ Oct. 7 sale of African American fine art, selling for $312,000 including premium. The price, the highest to date for an abstract work by an African American artist, far exceeded the New York auctioneer’s estimate of $150,000/200,000, and was the result of competitive bidding from several private and institutional collectors.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, won the work via telephone, placing the third bid over the high estimate. “We’ve been on the lookout for works by Norman Lewis for a while,” Elliot Davis, chair of the MFA’s art of the Americas department, told ARTnewsletter. “This one is in pristine condition, has great scale and we have the perfect context for it.”

Overall, the sale was uneven; many works garnered strong prices, but almost a third of the 103 lots in the auction failed to sell. In total, Swann realized $1.4 million, in the middle of the presale estimate of $1.1 million/1.6 million.

The MFA also acquired two other works at the sale: Hughie Lee-Smith’s oil The Juggler #1, circa 1964, for $90,000 (estimate: $60,000/90,000) and Walter Augustus Simon’s 715 Washington Street, Greenwich Village, 1947, for $36,000, above its $15,000/25,000 estimate. In a statement following the sale, MFA director Malcolm Rogers said the acquisitions “are in keeping with our commitment to deepen the MFA’s collection of 20th-century African American art.” Rogers added that the works will have “a permanent home in the Museum’s new American wing when it opens in late 2010.”

Among the other top earners were Frederick Douglass Lives Again (The Ghost of Frederick Douglass), 1949, a drawing by Charles White (1918–1979), which sold for $204,000 (estimate: $100,000/150,000); the acrylic painting Untitled (Hexagon Composition) by Alvin Loving Jr. (1935–2006), which took $156,000 (estimate: $20,000/30,000) and set a record for the artist’s work; The Land of Many Moons, 1957, an oil by Hale Woodruff (1900–1980), which brought $108,000 (estimate: $100,000/150,000), and Eight Passages, 1990, a set of eight screenprints by Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), which fetched $50,400 (estimate: $40,000/60,000). The Charles White and Alvin Loving works were both purchased by unidentified institutions.

“African American art is still a relatively new field,” Hillary Brody, Swann’s assistant director of African American art, said. “This is the first opportunity for many institutions to get these works, and they were strong bidders.” She noted that the auction house began its twice-yearly sales in this area in early 2007, and though she acknowledged some presale jitters about the economy, “we turned out to be very pleased with our results,” she added.

Among the disappointments of the auction were the failures of Machine Shop, an oil on panel by Ellis Wilson (1899–1977) estimated at $40,000/60,000, and Lewis’s Sunset #2, estimated at $40,000/60,000.

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