Swann Galleries African American Art sale saw high results for its seasonal auction for the category. A sculpture by Richmond Barthé sold for 15 times its low estimate of $40,000, realizing a selling price of $629,000, and setting a new record for the artist. The sale saw an overall 88 percent sell-through for a total of 187 lots offered, bringing in a total of $3.5 million, just over its presale estimate of $2.3–$3.4 million.
A cast bronze sculpture of a male figure wielding a machete, modeled in 1935 and cast in 1986, led the sale. The work, titled Feral Benga, is an example of the artist’s figurative studies from the 1930s, inspired by a 1934 trip to Paris, where he saw Senegalese dancer François “Féral” Benga perform at the Folies Bergère. Benga was famed in New York and Paris in the 1930s as a performer and model; he served as muse to artists who rose to prominence in the Harlem Renaissance. The original cast of the sculpture was first showcased in 1937 at the Dance International exhibition at Rockefeller Center. A Guggenheim fellow in 1940, Barthé created work that is held in several of the most prominent collections in the country including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Smithsonian American Art museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Sculptor and painter Richmond Barthé studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he developed a skill for figurative studies. Active in the Caribbean from 1947 until 1969, his works gained acclaim for anatomical renderings that combine the classical with the modern. Another major example of his work, Boxer, from 1942, features the sculptor’s signature rendering of the ideal male form, inspired by the 1930s Cuban amateur boxer “Kid Chocolate,” which resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Swann sale brings a new high for the artist, seven times the previous record set at $87,500, when a 1959 bronze figure sold at Swann in October 2017. The milestone marks the first time a Barthé has brought in six figures, and elevates him to one of the highest-selling black American modernists on the market.
“We had a number of interested parties who together swiftly bid the lot up to around $100,000, but the bidding quickly became a battle between two very determined collectors” for the Barthé sculpture said Nigel Freeman, Swann’s director of African-American Fine Art in a statement; Freeman also confirmed that the winning bidder wishes to remain anonymous. Along with Barthé, the sale set additional records for nine other artists.
Elsewhere in the sale, strong results came up for artists Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Sam Gilliam, and David Hammons, across the postwar market. Photographer and MacArthur fellow LaToya Ruby Frazier made a market debut with a pair of photographs selling for $93,750 and $10,625, each on an estimate of $4,000–$6,000. A leading lot by Jacob Lawrence failed to sell on an estimate of $250,000–$350,000, along with another sculpture by Barthé at an estimate of $60,000–$90,000.
Among the highest-selling lots was Women, Ghana, by American muralist John T. Biggers, which sold for $269,000, and an early David Hammons picture consigned by his 1964 college roommate for $137,000, which met its estimate. According to auction records, Women, Ghana is now the second highest-priced Biggers work ever sold, behind the 1962 Kumasi Market, sold at Swann for $389,000 from the collection of Maya Angelou in September 2015. Sam Gilliam’s Horses Upside Down, an acrylic on canvas from 1998, went for $125,000, and the Emma Amos A Well Balanced Meal fabric collage on canvas from 1990 sold for $87,500, still under the artist’s current auction record of $125,000, established at Swann in April 2019 with the sale of her 1999 collage Let Me Off Uptown.
Swann has been leading a growing market for African American artists for the past decade. The house’s 2009 foray in the category grossed a total of $2.6 million, which rose to a 2019 total of $7.5 million in the category, a 189 percent increase overall. The category has also seen an increase in total sales volume for every biannual auction by 2.8 times since 2009, and has nearly doubled the average lot price from $11,634 to $22,437. This sale comes in slightly under last year’s comparable auction staged in April, which brought in $3.8 million.
Last week, Swann Galleries President Nicholas Lowry issued a statement supporting the global Black Lives Matter movement in response to the murder of George Floyd, noting they do not take lightly their “role as an auction industry leader in the fields of African Americana, African American Fine Art and the printed and manuscript history of the LGBTQ+ community.”