Thursday, October 14, 2010

Swann Galleries: African American Fine Art , Sale 2224

Swann Galleries held its ninth African American Fine Art sale on October 7, 2010. This was the continuation of an on-going series of auctions devoted entirely to African-American fine art, beginning in February 2007. In comparison to American art, as a whole, African American art is still in its nascent stage as it relates to auctions. Because there has not been an extensive amount of African American art at auction, these works can still be acquired at very reasonable prices. Unfortunately, the art produced by African American artists is clearly undervalued by any standard of judgment. For the time being, many good to excellent works are affordable even for the beginning and mid-level private collector or smaller institutions that have included collecting works by African American artists as a part of their collection development policy goal. 

This most recent auction of 140 lots had a success rate of selling 2/3 of the lots, leaving 42 lots unsold. Questions abound as to the why the 42 lots did not sell. Is the economy still at an unsettling stage for the average collector in this area of collecting? Is it fair to assume that the highs and lows of the general financial market is reflected in the art market? Have the "investor-collector" and the "speculative-collector" become less visible as in the housing market? Are the results from this current art sale simply an overall trend or pattern in the area of fine art auctions? Were the available items not of interest based on style, subject matter, artist representation? In spite of the many questions, the results from art auctions can have a positive impact on an artist's financial future. Simply stated, when an artist's prices rise at auction, then the prices on new works sold by the artist or their dealer will also rise.

Robert Colescott, A Legend Dimly Told, 1982,
Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 72 inches
Approximately 17 lots either met or exceeded their high expectations; however, two items were among record prices at Swann's African-American Fine Art auction. The top lot was Robert Colescott's A Legend Dimly Told, that sold for $132,000 inclusive of buyer's premium, setting an auction record for the artist. A Legend Dimly Told which is an acrylic on canvas (84 x 72 inches) and dated 1982 had an estimate of $50,000 - $75,000. According to the exhibition catalogue, it had been exhibited in "The Whitney Biennial, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1983; Robert Colescott: A Retrospective, 1975 -1986, San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, California; and a traveling exhibition, 1987 - 1989." For more information on  Colescott, read Robert Colescott's obituary from the New York Times and his oral history interview  from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. 

Sargent Claude Johnson, Mask, 1933,
Copper repoussé with gilding,
12½ x 6½ x 2 inches

 Sargent Johnson's Mask (lot 8), one of my personal favorites in the auction, also set an artist record when it sold for $67,200 inclusive of buyer's premium. Its pre-auction estimate was $30,000 - $50,000. As stated in the Swann auction catalogue, "Mask is an excellent example of Sargent Johnson's work in repoussé from the 1930s, and the first of its kind to come to auction. It is among the earliest examples of his sculpture incorporating African forms with modernist design." For further reading, see: Sargent Johnson, Retrospective (an exhibition catalogue from the exhibition curated by Evangeline J. Montgomery at the Oakland Museum, Art Division Special Gallery, February 23 to March 21, 1971.); Sargent Johnson : African American Modernist (an exhibition catalogue from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, March 13 to July 7, 1998; and Sargent Johnson (an article by E. J. Montgomery in the International Review of African American Art, vol. 6 (2) 1984, pages 4-17. Check your local library for these and other titles relating to African American art and artists. Also, see the Smithsonian Archives of American Art's oral history interview with Johnson which was conducted July 31, 1964.  

As I indicated, lot 8 was one of my personal favorites; overall, I was drawn to the small sculptural pieces. Other favorites included Charles Alston's Untitled (lot 13, Head of a Man) which was one of the unsold pieces and Elizabeth Catlett's polished cast bronze (lot 98, Portrait) which did sell for its low estimate ($24,000 inclusive of buyer's premium). Also, Dox Thrash's Portrait of a Young Man (lot 18), Robert Pious' Joe Louis vs. Clarence "Red" Burman (lot 22), Lois Jones' Le Sacré-Cœur, Montmartre, Paris (lot 42), and Hale Woodruff's Returning Home (lot 9) were of special interest. I am now anxiously awaiting the next African-American Fine Art auction at Swann Galleries.

To view the results of the African American Fine Art Sale 2224, see: sale results and prices including buyer's premium.


  1. Well written article. I suspect that when the economy starts to regain momentum than the percentage of unsolds will decrease.

  2. Exquisite and lovely Sargent C. Johnson copper mask. Hope it will be displayed for many to admire. Betty in TX.