Thursday, October 13, 2011

Swann Galleries: African-American Fine Art, Sale 2255

Swann Auction Galleries' African-American Fine Art Sale 2255 on October 06, 2011 was the most successful auction over the past three years (February 2009 to present), bringing in $1,789,989 with Buyer's Premium, and selling approximately 75% of the lots. According to Nigel Freeman, Director of African-American Fine Art at Swann Galleries, “We are very pleased by the results of yesterday’s sale. We saw strong prices that reflect the quality and importance of the pieces featured in this auction, and a handful of new auction records for artists including Joseph Delaney and Loïs Mailou Jones.”

I was particularly pleased to see that Loïs Jones' "Marché de Kenscoff, Haiti", oil on canvas, 1962 which sold for $32,400, exceeding its high estimate of $18,000 set an auction record for the artist. This is an accomplishment that has been long overdue. Sale 2255 featured five paintings and watercolors from the estate of Loïs Mailou Jones, marking the first time works have been available at auction directly from her personal collection.

Also, it is worth noting that four lots in this Sale surpassed their high estimate and hit the six figure mark: Charles White, Work (Lot 61, crayon and charcoal on board, 1953, $306,00); Robert S. Duncanson, Untitled Landscape (Lot 1, oil on canvas, late 1850's, $120,000); Jacob Lawrence, two Untitled gouache paintings of Card Players, (Lot 30, panels from a folding screen, circa 1941-42, $108,000); and Hughie Lee-Smith, Desert Forms, (Lot 65, oil on masonite, 1957, $102,00). The price quotes reflect the buyer's premium. Images of these four lots follow:

Charles White, Work

Robert S. Duncanson, Untitled (Landscape)

Jacob Lawrence, Untitled  (gouache paintings)

Hughie Lee-Smith, Desert Forms
Although Sale 2255 was the most successful auction over the past three years, historically it has not been the largest nor the highest earning auction  over the period that Swann has sponsored the African American Fine Art Sale. Both in size of lots and earnings, the February 6, 2007 (Sale 2102) and February 19, 2008 (Sale 2136) were larger.

As I reflect on these Sales over the years, I am thankful that works by African American artists are more visible on the auction scene. This visibility has raised the awareness of African American artists to a larger audience in the artworld. Although some of the lots sold for prices below pre-sale estimates, offering buyers an opportunity of great deals, I wonder what impact the low selling prices will have on an artist's career? Even more so, what impact will a "no sale" have on the career of the contemporary artist? What are the factors that make the African American artists' works at auction seem to hover in the five figure range or lower when their contemporaries (non-African Americans) can more consistently command six figures and millions? If the aesthetic quality and content of a work between two artists are comparable, how much does patronage or curatorial sanction play in auction prices? What impact does low auction prices have on works of artists in existing private collections? How is African American art fitting into the larger auction-market trend? What are the lessons that collectors, artists, art historians, and art critics drawing from the current auction-market trends? The long and short of my queries focus on a value judgment; ...simply stated what makes an artwork valuable? 

Markets, and the art market is not an exception, are cyclical in nature and are determined by a number of variables, including prevailing public taste, supply and demand, quality, and the like. I remain optimistic that the monetary value of the work of African American artists will be realized over time; particularly,  as they become documented in major texts through comprehensive scholarship, become better known by curators and offered more opportunities for exhibitions in top-tier museums, and are included in more galleries that focus on representing and promoting their careers rather than simply selling their art. 

The artwork in these Sales are by important artists whose works are of immense value, even if that value is not consistently reflected in the realized prices at auction.  


  1. Thank you for your compelling report on this very important auction.

    I was able to attend the exhibition on Saturday proceeding Thursday‘s auction. The quality and diversity of the art exhibited was very impressive, I was especially interested in the work of the African American landscape painters.

    It was awe-inspiring to study the Robert S. Duncanson landscape (untitled) that sold for $120,000 and an early and later landscape of Edward Mitchell Bannister that sold for $13,000 and $31,000 respectively and a contemporary landscape that sold for $11,400 of Richard Mayhew.

    Robert S. Duncanson: The Spiritual Striving of the Freedmen’s Sons” exhibition, celebrated May 1--- October 30, 2011 at the Thomas Cole National Site in Catskill, NY, the birthplace of American Art.

    I wrote an article on Duncanson for at:

    I am developing a survey article on African American landscape painters highlighting Robert S. Duncanson, Edward Mitchell Bannister and Richard Mayhew.

    Walter J. Bogan,

  2. Thank you for this outstanding article. I am speaking at the Corcoran/Howard Symposium and will quote sections from your piece, in an effort to further the understanding of the economics surrounding African American art.

    I will give you credit as my source.

    Myrtis Bedolla, Galerie Myrtis