NEW YORK—When Philadelphia dealer John Ollman began selling artworks by Bill Traylor (circa 1854-1947) in 1981, prices started at $150 and the works “were hard to sell,” the Philadelphia gallery director told ARTnewsletter.
In comparison, this past November his Fleisher/Ollman Gallery sold a painting by Traylor to a private collector for $200,000 and has realized even higher prices, such as the $250,000 brought by a Traylor painting in 2002.
Back in 1981 a collector offered Frank Maresca, director of the Ricco/ Maresca Gallery, New York, the chance to buy 125 Traylor paintings for $16,000 ($128 each). Maresca turned the offer down, he recalls, worrying that “we would spend more on framing than we could make selling them.”
Some months later, after an exhibition of folk art at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, Maresca changed his mind, buying 40 Traylor paintings for a total of $40,000. Though the works “weren’t flying out the door,” Maresca says, prices and interest were rising—“creeping up to the $1,600/1,800 range, then $2,500, then $3,800 and $5,500.”
He notes that “there was an exponential jump when Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, took them in” later in the decade—“finding the right clients, producing catalogues, marketing the work as fine art, not as ‘self-taught’ and starting prices at $8,500.” By the time the gallery’s association with Traylor ended in the early 1990s, prices were nearing $40,000.
Although Traylor lived into his 90s, his art career was brief. Born a slave on the George Hartwell Traylor plantation 40 miles from Montgomery, Ala., he lived there until around 1938. Moving to Montgomery, he began to draw on pieces of discarded cardboard. He drew and painted steadily for the next several years until age and infirmity halted his output. In all, he may have produced 1,600 works.
Around 1939 Traylor was discovered by Montgomery artist Charles Shannon, who befriended him, gave him art materials and arranged the only shows held during his lifetime.
In 1941 New York’s Museum of Modern Art showed interest in acquiring 16 of Traylor’s paintings, but the price that museum director Alfred Barr was willing to pay for them—approximately $1 apiece—was so low that an outraged Shannon withdrew the works from sale. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Shannon again made a concerted effort to interest collectors and dealers in the artist’s work.
A 1997 sale at Sotheby’s, wholly dedicated to Traylor’s paintings, fetched $178,500 for Blue Man, Black Mule. The artist was included in the Corcoran Gallery’s 1982 landmark exhibition, “Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980,” which featured a Traylor painting on the catalogue cover.
Collectors of Traylor’s work are varied and include a number of Europeans. A 1999 exhibition, “Bill Traylor 1854-1949: Deep Blues,” was organized by the Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland, and subsequently traveled to the Ludwig Museum, Cologne. “Traylor’s work has really crossed over into the contemporary arena,” says Ollman. “When we talk about works going for $200,000 and more, these are prices collectors of self-taught artists are resistant to.”
Some Traylor paintings are available at galleries for as little as $25,000 (for an image of a single animal), while other, more dramatic works move prices into the $55,000/65,000 range and upward of $100,000 for more complex designs. Traylor left no estate and, though he may have fathered as many as 20 children, his progeny owned none of his works.
All artworks by Traylor are on the secondary market. The top price paid at auction for the artist was a mid-estimate $203,750 at Sotheby’s in 2001 for a pencil-and-gouache piece on cardboard, Man with Yoke.