Purchase Story

African American Fine Art

Swann Galleries, New York City

Photos courtesy Swann Galleries

A standing-room-only crowd assembled at Swann Galleries, New York City, in the midafternoon of October 5, 2017, and three and a half hours later, 124 lots of modern and contemporary African American works had been sold. The auction had estimates of $2,283,500/3,371,000; the actual sale total was $2,800,585 (including buyers’ premiums), with an 81% sell-through rate.

One of the older works offered was Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Flight into Egypt, circa 1910, which became the top lot of the sale. The oil on linen had been exhibited in Twenty-Third Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists at the Art Institute of Chicago, October 18 through November 27, 1910. The painting sold for $341,000 (est. $200,000/300,000) to an institution.


Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a 23¼ " x 37" signed oil on canvas, sold to an institution for $341,000 (est. $200,000/300,000). This Biblical story was a favorite subject of Tanner, and there are at least 15 examples known, dated between 1899 and 1932, including works in the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Cincinnati Art Museum; the National Museum of African American History and Culture; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, according to the catalog.

The top 20 results included new auction records for Richmond Barthé, whose two large cast bronze sculptures went to the trade; Ernie Barnes, with a $47,500 record price for The Maestro; and a record price for a tempera on paper by Elizabeth Catlett, whose War Worker sold for $149,000. An auction record was also made for Larry Potter, whose The Edge, circa 1962, sold for $8750.


Stevedore (left) by Richmond Barthé (1901-1989), cast bronze with a green and brown patina on a red marble base, modeled in 1937, cast in 1985, 30 5/8" x 20" x 14½", not including base, sold to a dealer bidding on the phone with Atina Sutton, associate cataloger and administrator in the African American fine art department, for $75,000 (est. $30,000/40,000).

Barthé’s The Awakening of Africa, cast bronze with a dark brown patina, 1959, 15" x 28" x 8", sold to New York City dealer Betty Krulik, who was bidding in the salesroom, for $87,500 (est. $50,000/75,000). The sale was an auction record for the artist.


War Worker by Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) is the artist’s second painting to come to auction, and the sale made a record for the medium. The tempera on paper, mounted to masonite board, 1943, 11¾" x 9¼", estimated at $60,000/90,000, sold to a collector bidding on the phone for $149,000.

Nigel Freeman, director of African American fine art at Swann Galleries, said, “Our audience responded to the offerings of scarce and significant modern and contemporary artworks with significant bidding past high estimates. Institutions were active on the sale, acquiring nearly a dozen works, including Tanner’s Flight into Egypt and works by Elizabeth Catlett, Edward Bannister, Emma Amos, Columbus Knox, and Carrie Mae Weems.”

“We’ve consistently been around the eighty percent sell-through rate. It seems to be the sweet spot for us. We will continue to get the best material we can,” Freeman said in a telephone interview a few days after the sale. “Postwar abstraction is a big part of the market now,” he said, mentioning artists Sam Gilliam and Norman Lewis.

Institutions, big and small, participated by bidding on some of the top lots and on some of the smaller ones. The Schmucker Art Gallery, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, bought two works—Secretary, a silver print from 1929 by James Vanderzee (1886-1983) for $1375 (est. $2000/3000), and Builders, an etching by James Lesesne Wells (1902-1992) from circa 1938, for which the gallery paid $3000 (est. $3000/5000).


Rubiyat by Sam Gilliam (b. 1933), a 1973 acrylic and flocking on cotton canvas, estimated at $60,000/90,000, sold to a collector bidding on the phone for $191,000. The 31" x 73" painting with beveled edges, signed, titled, and dated in ink on the canvas overlap on the back, had been acquired directly from the artist and was consigned by a private collection in Washington, D.C.


This oil on marbleized slate, 1960, by Norman Lewis (1909-1979), untitled by the artist but called Procession Composition, 14" x 54½" x 3/8", is incised with his signature and date “12-14-60” at lower right. It became the second-highest-priced lot at this auction when it sold for $233,000 to a collector. The work had been acquired directly from the artist in 1960 and then descended to the consignor, a private collection in Texas. The calligraphic painting on an unusual surface had an estimate of $100,000/150,000.


A collector bidding in the salesroom bought Romare Bearden’s At the Dock, a watercolor on wove paper, 1984, for $37,500. The 30" x 22" signed watercolor, estimated at $20,000/30,000, has as part of its provenance June Kelly Gallery, New York City, and came from a private collection in Connecticut.


Interlude by Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999), oil on linen, 1991, 26" x 18", signed, sold to a collector bidding on the phone for $55,000 (est. $20,000/30,000). The painting was featured on the back cover of Swann’s catalog. Lee-Smith did a series of paintings in the late 1990s depicting musicians and actors in a staged environment.


Three phone bidders wanted this untitled 1992 coastal landscape by Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998). The 18" x 24" watercolor on thick wove paper sold for $10,000 (est. $3000/5000).

Two days before the auction, on October 3, Swann Galleries hosted an evening reception with speakers Robert E. Holmes, a lawyer in the entertainment business and patron of African American art and culture, and Victoria L. Valentine, editor and founder of Culture Type, a website dedicated to exploring black modern and contemporary art.

Swann’s next African American fine art sale will be held in late spring. Further information can be found at (www.swanngalleries.com).


The Maestro by Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), circa 1978, sold to a collector bidding on the phone for $47,500 (est. $20,000/30,000). It was an auction record for the artist. Barnes framed the 18" x 24" acrylic on cotton canvas in a frame he built. According to Swann’s catalog, the artist framed his early paintings with the distressed wood from a weathered picket fence in honor of his late father—inspired by the fenced backyard of his childhood home in Durham, North Carolina.


Lady with Fan II by Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015) sold to a phone bidder for $75,000 (est. $30,000/40,000). The painting is signed, titled, dated, and inscribed “oil on canvas. 18" x 12" canvas.” It comes from the latter part of the artist’s decades-long series celebrating the form and beauty of African American women, according to the auction catalog.


Bidders on the phone and online were interested in this untitled work by Ed Clark (b. 1926). The 33½" x 47" work in color pastels, pigment, and pencil on cream wove paper, 1980-81, sold to one of the phone bidders for $20,000. The signed and dated pastel had an estimate of $8000/12,000.


Bernard Harmon (1935-1989) was a native Philadelphian who graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Tyler School of Art at Temple University. His focus was on portraiture. Musician Boy, oil on masonite, 1968, 40" x 36", estimated at $5000/7000, sold to a phone bidder for $16,250. Harmon spent 32 years as an art educator in Philadelphia, teaching at Drexel University, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and in high schools throughout the city.


Originally published in the January 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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