NEW YORK—On Nov. 17, a sale of American art at Swann Galleries set a new record for a work by social realist painter Robert Gwathmey, famous for his depictions of African-American life in the rural South. Prologue II, 1962, an oil on canvas, sold for $72,000, meeting the $60,000/90,000 estimate. The previous artist record of $33,350 was set in 1995.
“Nothing of this quality has come up at auction before,” explains Andrew Dintenfass, director of the Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York, which has exhibited the artist’s work for over 30 years. Though Gwathmey was a prolific artist, says Dintenfass, “we sold out every show,” leaving almost no work behind when the artist died in 1988.
The remaining pieces were passed on to the artist’s son Charles Gwathmey, the celebrated architect who designed the Busch-Reisinger Museum and Library at Harvard University in 1991, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s addition in 1992 and the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College in 2008. According to Dintenfass, as Charles became increasingly prominent, his father “was eclipsed. He got lost in time.”
The Swann sale featured several other works by Robert Gwathmey; all five of the works on offer found buyers. Following the record price, another oil on canvas, entitled Southern Farmer, 1966, sold for $43,200, compared with an estimate of $40,000/60,000.
The three other lots, all works on paper, brought far more modest prices ranging from $1,500/8,400, compared with estimates ranging from $1,000/6,000.
“People have been reluctant to send his work to auction, because there wasn’t much going on at the auctions for him,” Dintenfass said, adding that major pieces put up for sale nowadays are more likely to be found in art galleries, where prices range from $100,000 to $200,000.
Jeffrey Bergen, owner of ACA Galleries, New York, has also handled numerous works by Gwathmey over the years. Bergen says the highest price he has privately sold a Gwathmey painting for is over $300,000. Bergen said that, in the coming year, he plans to have a show of Gwathmey’s works, either on their own or in combination with works by Philip Evergood.
In addition to oils, Gwathmey also painted in watercolors and gouaches, which range in price from $5,000 to $15,000, as well as produced a large number of color screenprints, priced $2,000/5,000, according to Dintenfass.
Many museums feature Gwathmey’s work in their collections, notes Dintenfass, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and both Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Other top prices paid at auction in past years for Gwathmey’s work include $31,250, against an estimate of $25,000/35,000, for the oil on canvas Peace, 1967, at Christie’s in 2010 and $28,000, compared with an estimate of $12,000/18,000, for the undated oil Picking Cotton at Sotheby’s in 2007. Most of the artist’s auction prices have been under $10,000.