NEW YORK—Swann Galleries’ auction of African American art on Feb. 23—its seventh since the series was initiated in 2007—realized a total of $1.2million, just under the estimate of $1.3million/1.9million. (Swann’s previous African American sale, in October 2009, took in a total of $1.4million.) Of the 162 lots on offer, 118, or 73 percent, found buyers.
The top lot of the sale was Malvin Gray Johnson’s oil on canvas Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1928–29, which sold for $228,000, within the $200,000/250,000 estimate. The painting, which depicts plantation slaves, was included in the 1929 traveling exhibition “Negro Art,” and was quickly recognized as a major work. Johnson’s career was short—he died suddenly in 1934, at the age of 38—but the painting has retained its force, holding center stage at the Studio Museum in Harlem’s 2003 retrospective of the artist’s work. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is the first work by the artist to come up at auction, consigned by the heirs of John Wilson Lamb, who bought it in 1929.
A number of other works did well at what turned out to be an up-and-down sale. David Hammons’s pigment, ink and colored-pencil drawing Untitled (Body Print), 1977, sold for $114,000, above its $80,000/100,000 estimate, but a bigger surprise was the $66,000 paid for Hammons’s six-foot-long wood and wire-mesh Untitled (Fly Swatter), 1992, many times the $5,000/7,000 estimate. “Fly Swatter was the sleeper of the sale,” said Nigel Freeman, Swann’s director of African American art. “So few of his works come up at auction, so we took a very conservative estimate.”
Other sales included Norman Lewis’s watercolor and ink drawing Midnight Carousel, 1960, which sold for $55,200 on an estimate of $50,000/75,000; Sargent Claude Johnson’s terra-cotta sculpture Untitled (Standing Woman), 1933, which sold for a record $52,800 against an estimate of $30,000/50,000; Barkley Hendricks’s oil and acrylic painting Jackie Sha-La-La (Jackie Cameron), 1975, which sold for $48,000 on a $40,000/60,000 estimate, and Jacob Lawrence’s gouache on board Untitled (Two Card Players), 1941–42, which sold for $45,600 against an estimate of $20,000/30,000. Untitled (Harlem “Backyard Banquet”), 1920s, a black-and-white photograph by James VanDerZee, brought $9,600 against an estimate of $3,000/5,000, a record for a work by the artist.
Other higher-than-expected prices included the $31,200 paid for Charles White’s linoleum print Solid as a Rock (My God is Rock), 1958 (estimate: $8,000/12,000), and the $26,400 paid for Romare Bearden’s watercolor and ink Untitled (Three Figures), ca. 1947–48 (estimate: $12,000/18,000). Richard Mayhew’s oil Del Mar Vista, 1988, sold for $21,600, a record for a work by the artist (estimate: $10,000/15,000), and Beauford Delaney’s watercolor and gouache Untitled (Cannes), 1967, sold for $19,200 (estimate: $10,000/15,000).
Freeman noted that the audience for this category has been broadening to include not only African American collectors and specialists but also “new buyers, collectors in different areas of art, collectors in Europe. The VanDerZee appeals to people who are interested in early photography,” he said. He characterized buying at this auction, however, as “selective,” perhaps reflecting the continuing effects of the economic recession.