Nigel Freeman has built a strong position in the African-American auction market through his sales at Swann Galleries beginning in 2007. Over the last dozen years, Freeman has increased the size and volume of his sales as African American artists have grown in prominence throughout the Contemporary art market. On the eve of his April 4th sales, we sent a few questions to Freeman.
This seems like a bigger sale in volume than the previous sales. Can you give us a sense of how these sales have grown over the years and is there an increase or decrease now that other auction houses have come to feature African American artists in their Contemporary art Evening sales?
By lot number, our sales have grown slightly over the last few years, from around an average of 150, to about 175 lots. The real area of growth has been in our totals, as last year’s auctions were the two highest-revenue sales in our department’s history. There has been an infusion of new interest, with collectors pursuing both modern and contemporary artists resulting in record-breaking results. Several significant records that had endured for years finally were broken in 2018, including Robert Colescott, Eldzier Cortor, Beauford Delaney, William H. Johnson, Charles White and Hale Woodruff. This growth, combined with continued broad demand for postwar abstract paintings, led by Sam Gilliam and Norman Lewis, has carried our auctions to new heights.
The mix of artists here has many familiar names—Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Hughie Lee Smith, Robert Duncanson—and a number of newer names to your sales like Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Frank Bowling. Is this a product of market demand, the vicissitudes of supply, or the effect of a show like Soul of a Nation?
Soul of a Nation is a wonderful exhibition that shows the growing stature and internationalization of African-American art as a leading cultural force. The exhibition features dozens of artists our department has been offering since its early years, including artworks acquired at Swann. We actually hold the auction record for all three “newer” artists you mention: Bowling, Ringgold and Pindell. We have been selling Frank Bowling’s paintings since 2012 and set the current auction record in 2017 with one of his vertical poured paintings. We anticipate another spike in his market this year in anticipation of his upcoming major retrospective at the Tate. We were also the first auction house to sell a Faith Ringgold story quilt and set her current auction record back in 2015 when a significant work from The Art Collection of Dr. Maya Angelou was acquired by the Crystal Bridges Museum. So, in some respects, the rest of the auction market is now catching up to our sales and our knowledgeable collectors.
We are also continuing to keep up with the demand for a wider range of contemporary artists. In October, we established auction records for older figures Robert Colescott, Melvin Edwards and Noah Purifoy, while scarce editions by Rashid Johnson, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker set record prices. In this April sale, we feature contemporary art by established women like Emma Amos, Howardena Pindell and Faith Ringgold, as well as artists newer to auction, like Simone Leigh, Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Sonya Clark.
Yes, as a significant abstract painter and contemporary of Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff‘s postwar abstraction is due new attention and has long been undervalued. We almost doubled our previous auction record with our April 5, 2018 sale of Woodruff’s Primordial Landscape ($245,000).
Norman Lewis’s Block Island is the work with the highest pre-sale estimate. Lewis may not be on the tip of many reader’s tongues. Can you explain a bit more about Lewis and his market?
As a part of the Abstract-Expressionist movement and a leading figure in the New York School, Norman Lewis’s innovative paintings connect the WPA/social realist and postwar periods through an innovative career. He was an influential figure as a leading African-American artist with a long period of representation at the prestigious midtown Willard Gallery through the 1950s, and a founding member of the politically conscious Spiral Group in the 1960s. However, both art history and the art market had largely overlooked his career until fairly recently. Swann Galleries has been the leading house for the sale of Norman Lewis, and has been setting his auction market record prices since 2005. His market has been rapidly rising since the 2015-16 retrospective Procession: the Art of Norman Lewis, a major traveling exhibition organized by curator Ruth Fine, which defined his many contributions. Our sales have included significant institutional acquisitions, including his 1950 Cathedral, once exhibited in the 1956 Venice Biennale, which was bought by the Tate Americas Foundation for the Tate Modern in April of 2015. In our April 4 auction, we are offering two of Lewis’s excellent abstract paintings, and a very strong group of his elegant works on paper that together span thirty years.
One of the next two most valuable works are a drawing by Charles White who just had a prominent retrospective at MoMA. What effect, if any, has that show had on White’s market?
We have certainly seen a marked rise in the value of Charles White works at auction this past year, with the excitement and attention surrounding his traveling retrospective, now at LACMA. The last two major Charles White drawings offered at auction, O Freedom and Nobody Knows My Name #1, were sold at Swann last year and set the two highest prices for White ever ($509,000 and $485,000, respectively), essentially doubling the previous record we had set back in October of 2007. Like with Norman Lewis, Swann’s sales have defined Charles White‘s market at auction. Several drawings and prints in the retrospective were obtained at Swann Galleries – including O Freedom, The General (Harriet Tubman) and Work. In the April 4 sale, we are offering another fine drawing – Caliban reflects Charles White‘s figurative interest in depicting bodies on a dramatic, heroic scale, while referencing a black figure found in Shakespeare.