Last week, New York’s Swann Auction Galleries African American Art sale brought in a total of $2.8 million with buyer’s premium across 174 lots, landing above the $2.2 million pre-sale estimate. The auction realized a successful 82% sell-through rate.
As the market for postwar and contemporary Black artists continues to rise, to which Swann’s African American art category significantly contributed over the past decades, so does competition among auction houses. This December sale total falls short of last year’s equivalent October sale result of $3.7 million made across 164 lots, which was slightly below the peak of October 2017 total of $3.75 million. The average sale price fro the fall sale saw a dip from $22,500 in 2019 to $15,810 in the present sale.
Despite the contraction—some of which is attributable to the new competition from the big three auction houses for some of the artists whose markets Swann helped develop—Swann maintained the sale’s usual status as a channel for moving up artist records. Among the top sellers were examples by postwar artists including Charles Alston’s new-to-market Black and White #8 oil on linen from 1961, which went for $197,000, surpassing its estimate of $150,000 and setting a new benchmark for the artist, more than three times his 2007 high price of $42,000. One explanation for the result is that another painting from this series, Black and White II, made circa 1960 resides in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Romare Bearden’s multi-colored collage Woman and Child from 1968 sold for $173,000 against an estimate of $150,000. Other collages from this 1968 series include Eastern Barn in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Farmer in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem and Woman and Child in the collection of the Crocker Art Museum. Sotheby’s recent ‘Contemporary Curated’ sale realized a new record price for Bearden, when a paper collage and acrylic on board, The Fortune Teller, sold for $770,200.
Another record was made for Wadsworth Jarrell, an artist active in Chicago in the postwar period and a co-founder of the AFRICOBRA movement. His 1970 canvas Subway sold for $125,000, against an estimate of $100,000-$125,000. Last exhibited in the late 1990s at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, that work also came made its auction debut at Swann last week, surpassing Jarrell’s previous record price of $97,500 set at Swann in 2016 for an untitled 1973 canvas.
Elsewhere in the sale, a gold-painted plaster bust made in the image of the artist’s young nephew, Gamin, made circa 1929 by sculptor and activist Augusta Savage, who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance and taught painter Jacob Lawrence, went for $112,500, surpassing the estimate of $20,000 by a factor of 5 times. The result marks a new record for artist, surpassing her previous highest price of $68,750 paid for a copy of Gamin sold at Swann in October 2018. The work came to the market with only one previous owner, a private collector from Arkansas, who purchased the work directly from the artist in 1939.
Romare Bearden‘s 1979 collage on board The Last of the Blue Devils, featuring scene of musicians sold for $100,000, double the high estimate of $50,000. Bearden created the piece on commission as a film poster for a documentary on the Kansas City jazz scene produced by filmmaker, Bruce Rickey. The seller acquired the work from Rickey’s estate. Emma Amos‘s Water Baby (1987) followed the same track, selling for double the high estimate for a final price of $100,000. Water Baby is an example from Amos’s formative works made in the 1980s depicting Black women swimming. Among the top performers in the group of postwar artists represented in the same was Frank Bowling, Repose for SO from 1976, which made a final price of $93,750. Kenneth Victor Young’s Untitled, acrylic on cotton canvas, made circa 2000 sold for for $81,250; John N. Robinson’s Reclining Woman (Gladys), 1952, went for for $81,250, also a record for the artist. Meanwhile, Alma Thomas‘s Untitled (Composition in Dark Blue Black and Deep Pink) work on paper from 1972 made $62,500 and Ed Clark’s work on paper Untitled (Louisiana Series), 1978, found a new buyer for $60,000.
At another point in the sale, a 2004 sculpture by contemporary artist Simone Leigh sold for $93,750. Leigh’s market ascent comes on the heels of her addition to Hauser & Wirth’s formidable roster and recent news that she will be representing the United States in the 2022 Venice Biennale. Her stoneware sculpture Head, exhibited in the artist’s debut solo exhibition Momenta Art in Brooklyn, went for $93,750, against a low estimate of $75,000. Leigh saw a recent record of $403,200 when her sculpture. No Face (House) sold at Sotheby’s New York during the house’s “Contemporary Curated” this year.