NEW YORK—A 1944 oil-on-canvas board painting titled Building More Stately Mansions, by painter Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), took the top price at Swann Galleries’ third African-American fine art auction in New York on Feb. 20. The painting earned a record $600,000, including premium, and quadrupled the high estimate of $150,000.
Consigned by a private collector, the Douglas picture was acquired by the museum of the Rhode Island School of Design for its newly redesigned American wing after spirited bidding against five other museums and two private collectors. The previous record for the artist—$97,000—was set last year at Sotheby’s.
A number of other pieces also did well: A terra-cotta sculptural bust by Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1915) sold for $216,000 (estimate: $200,000/250,000); an oil on canvas, Europa and the Bull, by Hale Woodruff (1900-80), produced $120,000 (estimate: $120,000/180,000); and an untitled oil by Beauford Delaney (1901-79) fetched $102,000 (estimate: $50,000/75,000)—all setting records for the respective artists.
However, the overall sale of 270 lots realized $2.24 million, hammer ($2.7 million with premium), falling well under the presale estimate of $3.7/5.5 million. The auction was 65 percent sold, and many of the unsold lots were those that carried higher estimates. (Swann has held two other sales of African-American art. The first, on Feb. 6, 2007, earned $2.4 million [ANL, 3/20/07, p. 6]; the second, on Oct. 4, 2007, fetched $1.4 million [ANL, 10/16/07, pp. 4-5].)
Works by Romare Bearden, Delaney, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White and Woodruff were among those bought in. “There’s a learning curve here, especially when you move into a new market,” Nigel Freeman, director of the African-American art department, told ARTnewsletter, “but I wouldn’t call it a disappointing sale when you set a number of record prices.”
Freeman suggests that concerns about the economy, as well as the overly optimistic expectations of consignors following the first two African-American sales at Swann’s, may have factored into the high buy-in rate.