Friday, February 27, 2009

Swann Galleries Auction

The African-American Fine Art auction (Sale 2169) was held at Swann Galleries on Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 1:30 PM. Although smaller than last year's sale which consisted of 264 lots, this sale had 169 lots of many museum-quality works from a number of private collections, representing all of the major 20th-century artistic movements. The smaller number of pieces in the auction might be indicative of the downturn in the economy. One can readily assume, with a fair degree of accuracy, that many of the items that were presented at auction are in private hands and owners are fearful that they might not be able to get the maximum price for their items in an auction at this time. As I speak of money and value, I am ever mindful that there are dangers when one assumes that the price of a piece of art determines the quality of that art; history has shown that "price equals quality" is a poor barometer. However, such can not be mistaken when it comes to African American art that is woefully undervalued in the overall landscape of American art. Comparable African American artists of the same school of art, representing the same time period sell for considerably less than their counterparts. This makes them a favorable group to collect because their works have a greater potential to increase exponentially in value.

In spite of the fact that African American art is one of those current undervalued commodities with potential to realize a substantial future increase in value, the number of items sold and the price at which they sold in this auction is an indication that times are tight even for those with disposal income. There were only twenty lots that had a low estimate of at least $25,000; they included works by Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, Hughie Lee-Smith, Beauford Delaney, Charles Alston, Eldzier Cortor, Norman Lewis, Sargent Johnson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Howardena Pindell. A quick analysis of those twenty lots follow:

  • Of the twenty lots, eleven (lots 12, 16, 23, 29, 30, 36, 38, 73, 82, 112, and 136) of those were unsold, including Charles White's "Hope Imprisoned," tempera on paper, which was estimated for $150,000 to 200,000. (See image at top left, Lot 30.)
  • Six lots (1, 35, 41, 42, 46, and 55) sold for less than their low estimates, including Charles White's "Move on up a Little Higher," which had an estimate of $200,00 - 250,000. Its hammer price was $190,000. (See image at bottom left, Lot 55.)
  • Lot 2, Henry O. Tanner's "Adoration of the Golden Calf" was the only item that sold for its high estimate ($60,000).
  • Two lots (45 and 93) sold above their high estimates. Lot 45 was Hughie Lee-Smith's "Untitled" (rooftop view) which sold for $85,000; its high estimate was $75,000. Lot 93 was Hale Woodruff's "Cinque Exhorts his Captives" which sold for $130,000; its high estimate was $100,000.
According to Nigel Freeman, Director, African-American Fine Art at Swann Galleries, "...We were thrilled to sell our cover lot, Move on up a Little Higher, a majestic drawing by Charles White to an important museum. We also set a new record price for a Hale Woodruff painting, Cinque Exhorts His Captives, 1973, which sold for $156,000; this was the fourth consecutive auction record for the artist (Woodruff) set at Swann in the past four years."

In ending this piece, I want to clarify the term sold. The "hammer price" refers to the winning bid and reflects the highest bid on the item; then the "buyer's premium," which reflects an agreed upon percentage of the "hammer price" are combined to get the realized amount paid by the successful bidder. In my examples, I have quoted the hammer prices. To view all the lots, follow this link to the archived catalogue:
To view the sale results (realized price paid) follow this link:

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