In May, the Indianapolis-based Black Art Auction house closed their inaugural auction comprising work solely by Black American artists, capturing an 80 percent sell-through rate among 152 lots offered, to bring in a total of $3.2 million. The sale drew more than 400 bidders and landed at the high end of its presale estimate of $2.3 million–$3.3 million. The sale total makes the house a leading competitor in the category, coming in just below the June Swann African American Art sale total of $3.5 million.
Founded by Midwest dealers Thom Pegg and Christopher West, the newly minted Black Art Auction is the only house devoted exclusively to sale of work by Black artists. As opposed to the growing market for Black artists in the contemporary sector, the new house prioritizes the sale of historically prominent African American artists whose omission from the top echelon of the art market is being reevaluated by modern and postwar collectors.
The sale’s leading lots were by postwar names that have seen recent high numbers. Sam Gilliam’s 1973 shaped-canvas painting, Patched Leaf, sold for a staggering $905,000 against a presale estimate of $300,000–$500,000, putting it now among the highest-priced of his works to be sold at auction. Gilliam’s auction record was set in 2018 in a Christie’s New York contemporary sale, when Lady Day II sold for $2.1 million. Alma Thomas’s double-sided watercolor dated 1967 went for $161,000, doubling its high $85,000 estimate, and setting a record price for a work on paper by the artist. A 1970 painting set Thomas’s auction record when it sold for $2.6 million at Christie’s in November 2019. Abstract painter Ed Clark’s China Series, an acrylic on canvas from 2000, sold for $341,000, surpassing its $300,000 high estimate. Another Clark canvas from 1978 went for double its low estimate in the Phillips “New Now” sale this past March to set his new record at $462,500.
Barkley Hendricks’s Lover’s Leap (Porch View) from 1996 (above) was offered at $20,000 and sold for $43,750.
West says that postwar Black American artists’ markets are reaching new levels. “Ten years ago the record price at auction for a work by Alma Thomas was about $200,000; Norman Lewis, $300,000; Sam Gilliam, $55,000. Work by all three has surpassed $2,000,000 at auction recently,” said West. “It is easy to see that historically, many Black artists’ work is important, but the price levels have not reflected that until very recently,” he adds.
Pegg points to several prominent artists debuting in the sale, including Mavis Pusey, a Harlem abstract painter who died in April 2019. She has attracted market attention both at auction and in private sales. Her prices have steadily grown (one of her major paintings might bring as much as $75,000–$100,000 now). Pusey will also be the subject of an upcoming traveling retrospective to be staged at the Birmingham Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Pegg says a “similar dynamic occurred with the work of Felrath Hines, a painter who worked in New York and Indianapolis, and was recently the subject of an exhibit at the Indiana State Museum.”
The new house’s aim, according to Pegg, who has been in the field of African American Art for several decades, is to act as a conduit for placing important historical works in prominent collections. “The Hunter Museum did a ‘re-creation’ of an important exhibit that took place in 1971 called ’Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum Exhibition,‘ and that original show included a work by Cliff Joseph, whose work was included in the May auction,” recalls Pegg. “They reached out to me, having known I was familiar with Cliff and handled his work, and I connected them with the collector who currently owns the relevant work—who loaned to the show—and I also provided a period image of the artist, and connected them with Cliff.” This 1971 show marked a seminal moment in American art history, with a group of black artists withdrawing from the Whitney museum’s exhibition “Contemporary Black Artists in America” in a movement organized by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition following the museum’s failure to appoint Black specialists to lead the curatorial program.
Elsewhere in the sale an abstract oil on canvas by Felrath Hines sold for $37,500, a new record for the artist. Richmond Barthé’s bronze sculpture from 1986 sold for $62,500, and Charles White’s Love Letter III, a color lithograph from 1977, sold for $18,750. A new record for Barthé′s work was just set at Swann Galleries in New York with a sculpture that sold for $639,000.
The sale also saw high demand for historical artists whose names are less recognizable. Grafton Tyler Brown’s landscape dated around 1900, featuring the Mississippi River in Minnesota, set a new record for the artist when it sold for $106,000, meeting the low end of its presale estimate.