Market for African-American art continues to grow
At its sixth biannual specialist sale, Swann sets four new artist records
By Viv Lawes. Web only
Published online: 09 March 2010
Hot on the heels of resurgent sales of impressionist, modern and contemporary works in London, auction records for African-American artists continued to stack up as Swann held its sixth dedicated biannual sale on 23 February in New York.
Sales were patchy but healthy enough: of 162 works offered, 118 sold (73% by lot) at a premium-inclusive total of $1.24m, just under the $1.3-1.9m total estimate. The top seller was auction virgin Malvin Gray Johnson’s best-known and celebrated oil painting Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1928-29, for which a collector paid $228,000 (estimate $200,000-$250,000). Four new artist records followed as institutions, collectors and dealers competed for the best works—this included a record for Sargent Claude Johnson’s tan painted terracotta figure Untitled (Standing Woman), 1933-35, which went to an unnamed institution for $52,800.
Swann’s inaugural sale of African-American art took place in February 2007, growing from specialist-in-charge Nigel Freeman’s observation of the frisson caused by African-American artists’ works on paper during regular prints and drawings sales.
“Three years ago, there was no auction market for African-American artists that even came close to their fair market value, with the exception of works by Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Henry Ossawa Tanner”, said Mr. Freeman. “Now we have set auction records for many more important artists and have introduced over 100 African-American artists to auction”.
Swann’s market for printed and manuscript African-Americana is significantly more mature. Specialist annual sales were launched 16 years ago by Wyatt Houston Day. The latest took place on 25 February, two days after the African-American fine art sale—with matching sales statistics of 73% sold by lot (287 of 390).
Institutional interest was spurred by an African-American art history archive built over five decades by artist-writer James Amos Porter, author of the groundbreaking Modern Negro Art, 1943. Packed with correspondence, photographs, catalogues and other data, four major institutions examined it before the sale. One anonymous institution secured it for $50,400 (estimate $30,000-$40,000), described by Wyatt Day as “a very good but still modest price [considering] the richness of the prime research material”. The result was second only to the departmental record of $57,600, set last February for five hours of original 16mm film of black life in the 1920s, shot by Reverend Solomon Sir Jones.
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