THE AFRICAN AMERICAN ART MARKET experienced a sea change seven years ago when Swann Auction Galleries began dedicating sales to African American fine art. Few auction records existed for African American artists at the time. Most sales were handled privately by galleries and dealers, making values hard to discern because prices were not disclosed to the public. From the start, Swann sales broke records and in the ensuing years many lots have topped $100,000, including works by Malvin Gray Johnson, Charles White, Aaron Douglas, Hughie Lee-Smith, Hale Woodruff, Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, Barkley L. Hendricks and Kara Walker. In October 2013, a circa 1957 untitled abstract by Norman Lewis sold for more than half-a-million dollars, a record for the artist. Nigel Freeman created Swann’s African-American Fine Art department in 2006, the only one of its kind at a major auction house. He spoke with me by phone about Swann’s influence on the market, sought-after artists and scarce works, and highlights from the forthcoming Feb. 13 sale of 19th and early 20th century art.
CULTURE TYPE: Swann’s first African American art sale was Feb. 6, 2007. How did it go?
NIGEL FREEMAN: It was a challenge to do the first sale, but the first auction was terrific. It was our most heavily attended exhibit and auction at Swann Galleries. We sold out of the catalog. The auction room was bursting at the seams. We had to have two floors of seating. The main auction room was full and there were some very high prices at sale.
The second auction was a first-class collection of art, the Golden State Mutual Life collection which had several very important works by artists that set auction records like Charles White, Hughie Lee-Smith and John Biggers. We did very well and were able to attract very good examples of the artists’ work. That kind of got the ball rolling and it’s been rolling every since.
After 16 sales, in your observation, what affect have Swann auctions had on the African American art market? It’s been a huge difference. If you looked online 10 years ago for auction records for African American artists you’d be lucky to find a name outside of Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Henry Ossawa Tanner and of the ones you would find the prices were very low.
Many artist values have changed overnight, often by huge margins. Charles White, for example, his previous auction record was something in the low $30,000. After our second auction, his auction record was $360,000. Leaps and bounds. So the auction prices went very high. Compared to the rest of the market, there is still a lot of ground to catch up. Values are still quite modest compared to their peers.
We have really benefited from the changing view of American art. American art collecting has gotten a lot broader. Museums have been much more active in acquiring works by African American artists trying to make collections of American art more inclusive.
Museums have been much more active in acquiring works by African American artists trying to make collections of American art more inclusive. — Nigel Freeman
Where do most of the consignments come from—individuals, collectors, galleries and dealers, from institutions, or directly from artists and their estates? It’s a mixture. Consignments come primarily from individual collectors, people who collected the work a while ago. Sometimes it’s the children of the original artist. Often a work is acquired directly from the artist. Sometimes we are dealing with the estates of the artist. For example, in this sale we have works from the trust of Lois Mailou Jones and the estate of Hughie Lee-Smith. A lot of acquisitions are closely related to the artists, just one or two steps removed. Because it is a young market, many of the works have been held on to for a generation or more.
Many works have exceeded estimates and set auction records over the years—Charles White, Norman Lewis, many artists. Who is buying these six-figure lots? It depends—both collectors, private individuals, as well as museums. A large Norman Lewis was acquired by the MFA Boston. It was the cover lot in the October 2008 sale. It’s hanging in their collection of the Americas in their primary collection. The recent Lewis that we sold in October 2013 [“Untitled,” blue abstract circa 1957 for $581,000 (including buyer’s premium)] was bought by a private individual, so it depends.
From left, Lot 77, “Untitled (Three Figures Seated at a Table),” circa 1946-47 (watercolor, brush and ink on cream wove paper) by Romare Bearden and Lot 78, “Untitled (Abstract Composition),” 1947 (oil on wood panel) by Norman Lewis.
Has the audience for African American art expanded? One of the biggest changes is five to 10 years ago most collectors of African American art were African American. Now individuals, private collectors who are seeking many of these artists, these modern masters, are often putting together collections that reflect the full range of artists. If you collect abstract expressionism, you might want a 1950s Norman Lewis in your collection. He is now recognized for his contribution as an abstract expressionist and he was very much a part of that period. You might not be a collector of African American art, but you certainly would be interested in Norman Lewis.
If you collect abstract expressionism, you might want a 1950s Norman Lewis in your collection. He is now recognized for his contribution as an abstract expressionist and he was very much a part of that period.
— Nigel Freeman
Collectors who collect social realism or drawings are certainly attracted to artists like Charles White and artists who are more figurative like Hughie Lee-Smith. People who collect sculpture are now coveting works of Elizabeth Catlett. We’ve had a lot of interest in post-war abstraction. Artists from the 60s and 70s who are abstract have had large growth in their value and market—artists such as Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams and Al Loving, who by their work you would not necessarily know they are African American.
Global buyers are driving the mainstream market, is there any international interest in African American art? We have had international interest and some international buying. It’s on a small scale but it’s growing. With global buying through auction websites you are able to search and find works sitting in your living room that could be for sale at Swann in New York or at the Drouot in Paris or in a small auction in Maine. The Internet has opened us up to a much wider audience. The stature of African American artists within American art has drawn international appreciation. Of course, a lot of these artists lived and worked in Europe, which has helped as well.
Any particular countries with active interest? Not one in particular. We’ve had consignments from the countries where these artists were living, such as Paris, France. We’ve had consignments come to us from Scandinavia where other expatriate artists lived in Denmark and Sweden. There is a William H. Johnson in our February 13 auction that came to us through a European collector (Lot 43, “Untitled (Wooded Pathway)”).
Describe the representation of black women artists in the sales over the years. There are many strong African American women artists from very early on. I’ve mentioned Elizabeth Catlett. We’ve had more of her work than any other auction house, setting many of her record prices. We’ve had works by female contemporary artists working today whether it’s someone who could have had a long career like Howardena Pindell or artist Kara Walker or someone very young like Xaviera Simmons, the photographer.
What’s nice about this February auction is there are a lot of strong early female figures who are independent artists in the sense that they struck out on their own against the grain. Artists like Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (Lot 25, “Untitled (Head)”) and Augusta Savage (Lot 59, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”) both were able to study in Paris. Augusta Savage had a big influence on the Harlem Renaissance generation because she taught. She had a school in Harlem. Norman Lewis was a student of hers.
There are a lot of strong early female figures who are independent artists in the sense that they struck out on their own against the grain.
— Nigel Freeman
For the Feb. 13 sale, are there any lots that you are watching with particular interest? It will be exciting to see what happens with artists like Malvin Gray Johnson, Lot 20. His work is super scarce. We’ve only had one painting of his before and that’s the only painting of his that I can find that’s come up at auction. An artist like that is hard to appraise. It’s a great modernist landscape “Along the Harlem River” from 1925, which is very early. There are very few modern African American artists from the 20s that you can actually put your hands on that aren’t in the collections of the Schomburg or the Smithsonian. Another artist that I mentioned earlier, Nancy Prophet, there are only about a dozen known works of hers so it’s very exciting to find a piece of hers in a private collection and bring it to auction.
Any others on your radar? Another female artist whose work is very scarce is Beulah Woodard. We had a group of her works from the Golden State Mutual Life collection [in the Oct. 4, 2007 sale]. Outside of that collection, her work is very scarce. She was an early proponent of African American imagery that reflected African heritage, very specifically, almost in an anthropological sense. You see that reflected in the piece (Lot 58, “African Woman”) as well as her great skill on modeling. It’s an expressive figurative work that’s really an unusual piece to find at auction. I am definitely interested to see what happens with that as well.
What is the backstory on the William H. Johnson piece “On a John Brown Flight”?
That’s a fantastic image. He did these prints, but they are not your typical screen print. They are very proofy. They are constructed in a painterly way. There are other known impressions of this. We found four others, but it is a very scarce print. They are not like modern or contemporary prints that were done in a defined edition from a matrix and signed by the artist and sold through a gallery. These he did himself and often printed them on found papers. It’s all hand-printed, hand colored and stenciled. Each is slightly different. They have not come to auction before. It’s the largest screen print from the series he did in the 40s and it is of course a great subject, John Brown, an abolitionist hero to many.
The Aaron Douglas works, Lots 80 and 81, are a very different style than what we are used to from him. He is such an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance. The style of painting that you associate with the Harlem Renaissance by him is very, very scarce. To find unique works by Aaron Douglas like that is very difficult. He didn’t really do many easel paintings in that art deco style. They are mostly the actual murals or studies and drawings for the murals. He was later commissioned to revisit them sometimes. In 2008, we had a small painting which was a slightly different version of “Building More Stately Mansions.” It did really well. At the time, I estimated it at $120,000 to $150,000 and it ended up selling with our buyer’s premium for $600,000. It was bought by the Rhode Island School of Design museum. They really wanted a piece that represented the Harlem Renaissance.
What about the Douglas lots in the sale? These two pieces are actually a style he painted in very often. He is known for the art deco mural-style painting, but most of his career in New York and while he was a professor at Fisk University, he often painted in an impressionist style. He did landscapes of New York and portraits in a painterly impressionist style. This drawing (Lot 80, “Snow Storm”), which is a winter scene, is a charcoal sketch from the early 50s when he was at Fisk. It’s a style of work that may not be familiar to everyone but he actually did a body of work in this style. When he wasn’t doing commissions and murals, he painted in this style.
We also have a very nice example of one of his etchings. “The Junk Man” is a very inky dark impression of a scarce print, an artist’s proof. He also did a body of etchings that isn’t as well known. Most of them date from around 1950. Some work he did later. He did linocuts like the Emperor Jones series in the 20s and we’ve had some of those. This is another side of his work.
It’s interesting that these both have this sort of atmosphere and weather kind of look and feel to them. They are a nice pair and they just happened to come together from two different sources.
What do you make of works like Henry O. Tanner’s “Gate in Tangier,” a print which seems to appear in almost every sale and is in the forthcoming auction? This etching, just like the Douglas, is an original etching in the sense that they are printed from the original matrix, the copper plate that the artist etched. In the case of the Tanner, an edition was printed later by his son. It is authorized, of course by, his estate, and signed and stamped by his son on the back. It’s very much a chance, an opportunity for somebody to afford a Tanner, a wonderful print at not a very high price. They are very popular for that reason. Not everyone can afford a Tanner oil. This is an original work by the artist. It’s printed later. We are quite clear about that, but we think they are great examples of his work.
How do you determine the cover image for each catalog? We did a blog post about choosing the cover for this one. We decided to use this self portrait by James Porter because he is the grandfather figure of African American art history. His writings on African American artists helped solidify the education and history of many of these artists before they were forgotten. His archives are quite extensive. He is also a great artist and showed all of his work in the 20s and 30s. This self portrait is a very well known work. It’s been reproduced and shown in many collections and museum exhibitions and this comes to us through the estate of his granddaughter. I thought it was a great image to represent a catalog and a show that’s about these early African American artists.
Does cover promotion of a work tend to boost its appeal and spike bids or is the value the value? It depends. We try to pick a significant piece for the cover. It’s got to work aesthetically. It’s not necessarily the top lot in the sale. Sometimes it just works out that way. It’s certainly a great way to publicize a piece. First and foremost, it’s got to represent the sale and spark interest.
Over the years, the sales have been titled simply “African-American Fine Art” and that began to change last October when the sale was titled “Point of Departure“ and this one is called “Shadows Uplifted.” Why the transition? In the past we’ve just done two auctions in October and February that were really big sales in the sense that they covered a lot of time from contemporary to 19th century. In October 2013 we did things a little differently. We put the modern and contemporary art in one sale and reserved the early material. That’s what we are seeing together in this February sale. Dividing them up makes it more interesting. Not using generic titles speaks to the complexity and richness of this area of the market.
Are the new titles an indication that you are curating the groupings? Yes. There is always a process. We are selective in what we pick will go into an auction and how it comes together. When there are just two sales and they are encyclopedic, it is hard to give definition to them. Galleries do it. Museums do it. Why not auction houses?
The catalogs have provided significant scholarship and documentation. Can you talk about the value of the catalogs and the archive that is accumulating with each sale? We really provide a lot more information than you typically find in auction catalogs. Our catalogs are collector’s items. A lot of the museum libraries and people collect these and have bought them before or after the auctions as documentation, especially in this area where there wasn’t as much public information about these artists. There is a whole new generation of African American art historians, who are writing about these artists now and organizing museum shows. But 10 years ago, there wasn’t as much information. Our catalogs are searchable. It puts more information out there and the more knowledgeable and interested collector we have, I think the better.
From left, Lot 68, “Jerry,” circa 1945 (etching on thick wove paper) by Charles White and Lot 69, “Untitled (Nude Sitting on a Bed),” circa 1948 (pen, ink, pastel and wash on cream wove paper) by Eldzier Cortor.
There are 82 lots in this sale. There were 149 in the October sale and 147 in last year’s February sale. Is the reduced number of offerings an indication of the market or something else? The main factor is that the material is harder to find. The size of the sale is primarily because there isn’t as much of this material. And that’s another reason why we didn’t just call it African American art. It is not the same as our big broad sales that we have been doing in previous years. The early American art market is smaller.
What work have you not seen come to market that you would love to get your hands on for the auction? Certain artists whose work is super scarce. For example, Archibald Motley has a retrospective at the Nasher Museum at Duke University. His work is very scarce. We’ve had a few of his works, but they are hard to find like Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson and Eldzier Cortor.
Any final thoughts? This is going on our seventh year, which is hard to believe. At the beginning, it was a new and exciting area in general and now it’s a wide open area. We have figured out our market. We know more about who our buyers are, the limits of the market, how large the sale can and can’t be. It’s definitely been a learning curve, but we have had a lot of success. CT
This interview has been condensed and edited.
“Shadows Uplifted: The Rise of African American Fine Art,” Swann Auction Galleries, New York, Feb. 13, 2014.