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Last week Swann held its semi-annual African American art sale. The $2.5m sale total reconfirmed the market’s overall levels and the price levels of several of its most important artists. More important in terms of the growth of this collecting category, which includes many artists who also sell in the Contemporary art category, is the way the numbers have begun to confirm a new plateau of sales volumes and average prices.
As the chart below reveals, the year-over-year growth of the African American art market continues. The last peak in sales was 2011. The market reset in 2012. Since that time, it has risen steadily until it made a dramatic leap in 2015. Those annual results reflected a dramatic 60% rise in auction volume from 2014 to 2015. More than $2m in sales were added in that period. But some of that was fairly lumpy in the form of a single Norman Lewis painting that made $965,000 at auction in 2015.
Even excluding the Norman Lewis work from the sales totals, 2016 saw the market volume for African American art at Swann pull back a little more than 10%. Nonetheless, the trend from 2012 seems to be unbroken with sales building on previous years and pullbacks not breaking through the level established two years before.
When we look at Swann’s results on a sale-by-sale basis comparing overall sales volume with the average price of works, we can see there’s volatility in the last five sales for both total sale volume and average price. December of 2015 saw a spike from the Norman Lewis sale. Yet the $18,000 average price level re-asserted itself three different times over the last five sales. That is something of confirmation signal for this market.
To see things a little better, we removed the Norman Lewis lot from the sales totals. The total sale volume remained volatile but the average prices showed even more consistency over those five sales. Perhaps more striking, one can quickly see that the worst of the five sales (April 2016) remains significantly higher than the previous peak in 2011.
Swann briefly flirted with having three sales a year in the category. Had they not held an extra sale in 2014, the chart might look a little different but not enough to break the overall pattern. It turns out that 2014 was a transitional year for this market. The sales increase in the latter part of the year seems to be in line with the growing momentum of the last two and a half years.