Lot 112: ALVIN D. LOVING JR. (1935-2006), “Untitled,” 1968 (diptych of acrylic on shaped cotton canvas). | Estimate $80,000-$120,000. Sold for $130,000 / $161,000 (including fees). RECORD

 

KNOWN FOR THEIR UNIQUE APPROACHES to abstraction, painters Alvin D. Loving Jr. (1935-2005) and Frank Bowling reached new benchmarks at Swann Auction Galleries last month. A geometric abstraction by Detroit-born Loving who lived and worked in New York, and a colorful abstraction from a series of “poured paintings” by Bowling, a Guyana-born British artist, each sold for $161,000 (including fees).

The records were among at least eight achieved at Swann’s African-American Fine Art Sale on April 6. Since 2007, the New York auction house has offered works by a widening selection of African American artists bringing attention to under-recognized artists and regularly setting new records year after year.

A decade ago, Swann made a major bet on the strength of the African American fine art market. Swann and other regional auction houses periodically sold works by African American artists in their general sales of post-war, modern and contemporary art. On Feb. 6, 2007, when the New York auction house held its inaugural sale dedicated to African American art, it was the first time a major auction house focused on the category. The largely untapped secondary market has grown exponentially in the years since.

The interest is best evidenced by the increasing number of works by African American contemporary artists for sale at Swann’s larger competitors—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. Later this week, Christie’s is offering several works by Los Angeles artists Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Henry Taylor, who have each set multiple new records over the past year. David Hammons’s African American Flag is for sale at Phillips. At Sotheby’s, more than 20 works by black artists such Crosby, Taylor, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, and Mark Bradford, are up for auction, including three paintings by Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017), who died last month.

ESTABLISHED BY NIGEL FREEMAN, Swann’s African-American Fine Art Department has held 24 sales. Beyond the transactions, the auctions have provided insight into art history, as well African American history and culture, largely through scholarship published in the auction catalogs.

Beyond the transactions, the auctions have provided insight into art history, as well African American history and culture, largely through scholarship published in the auction catalogs.


Lot 139: FRANK BOWLING (1936- ), “Morning Light,” 1974 (acrylic on cotton canvas), 1974. | Estimate $60,000-$90,000. Sold for $130,000 / $161,000 (including fees). RECORD

 

The second sale on Oct. 4, 2007, featured the art collection of Golden State Mutual Life. Founded in 1925, it was the largest black-owned insurance company in the West. Sold shortly before the company closed in 2009, the collection was assembled by William Pajaud over two decades and included works by Los Angeles-based artists Charles White, Betye Saar, Alonzo Davis, John T. Riddle Jr., Beulah Woodard, Richard Wyatt Jr., and Pajaud.

On Oct. 9, 2014, Swann sold the collection of Richard A. Long, an art collector who founded the African American Studies program at Atlanta University. Long, who later retired from Emory University, entertained the likes of James Baldwin, Romare Bearden, and Maya Angelou in his home. Angelou’s art collection was also offered at Swann (Sept. 15, 2015) and featured the first story quilt by Faith Ringgold to come to auction.

READ MORE about artist resale royalty rights

Swann has also planned programs to coincide with its African-American art sales. The auction house presented conversations with curator Naima Keith and Hendricks, whose celebrated portraits have sold at Swann and been featured on cover of sale catalogs. In advance of its sale on June 10, 2014, which featured “Sergio” by Hendricks, Freeman hosted a talk with the artist who offered insights about his inspirations and painting techniques.

The most recent April 6 sale at Swann included 181 lots and had a sell-through rate of 76 percent (138 lots sold, 43 went unsold). The hammer total was more than $2 million, and exceeded $2.5 million including fees.

Works by Los Angeles artists active during the 1960s and 70s Black Arts Movement were offered. The sale included works by assemblage artists John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, Timothy Washington, Riddle, Saar, and Hammons, whose 1976 double body print collage was the auction’s top lot ($389,000, including fees).

The auction catalog was as fascinating as the sale itself, featuring rigorously researched lot descriptions, as well as essays about the LA artists and Miriam Matthews (1905-2003), the first professionally trained African American librarian in California. Matthews was an art collector and several works from her collection by Don Concholar, Beulah Woodard, Priscilla “P’lla” Mills, White, and Pajaud, appeared in the sale. “Blues Singer,” the sculpture by Mills, is believed to be the first by the artist offered at auction.

The following lots were record breakers (including fees):

  • Lot 112: Alvin D. Loving Jr., “Untitled,” 1968 (acrylic diptych on canvas) | $161,000
  • Lot 139: Frank Bowling, “Morning Light,” 1974 (acrylic on canvas). | $161,000
  • Lot 13: Sargent Johnson, “Untitled (Negro Mother),” 1935-36 (copper with paint). | $100,000
  • Lot 58: Walter Williams, “Untitled (Boy on Porch),” circa 1965 (oil and sand on board). | $93,750
  • Lot 12: Leslie Garland Bolling, “Beautiful Womanhood,” 1931 (poplar wood). | $24,700
  • Lot 99: Timothy Washington, “Raw Truth,” 1970 (engraving on aluminum and assemblage, including cast iron, wood, nails, a zipper and a leather baseball mitt, with hand coloring). | $22,500
  • Lot 64: William Majors, “Crucifixion,” 1963 (pen and ink on cream wove paper). | $11,875
  • Lot 180: Eugene J. Martin, “Untitled,” 2000 (acrylic on cotton canvas). | $6,000
 


Lot 102: DAVID HAMMONS, “Untitled (Double Body Print Collage),” 1976 (pigment and ink on paper and printed paper collage on cardboard). | Estimate $200,000-$300,000. Sold for $320,000 / $389,000 (including fees)

 

AT THE OUTSET, Swann’s auctions attracted African American collectors and collectors and dealers whose interest was focused on works by African American artists. Today, the audience is much broader, including collectors from across the globe, museums, and collectors who focus on abstraction, for example, who recognize the importance of having Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams, Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, Loving, and Bowling, represented in their holdings.

A few years ago, I asked Freeman, director of the African-American Fine Art at Swann, about the affect Swann has had on the market. He said it has been profound:

    “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.”

Freeman said organizing the first sale was a “challenge,” but in the end the auction was “terrific.” He added that the second Golden State Mutual sale “did very well” and propelled the department forward.

“That kind of got the ball rolling,” he said, “and it’s been rolling every since.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
Recently published, “Frank Bowling” is the first comprehensive monograph of the Guyana-born British artist. “Al Loving: Torn Canvas” accompanied the first exhibition of the artist’s work since his death in 2005, which was presented at Gary Snyder Gallery in New York. Coinciding with the exhibition, “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980,” a comprehensive, fully illustrated catalog edited by curator Kellie Jones. Her new book, “South of Pico,” further explores the production of black artists in 1960s and 70s Los Angeles.

 


Lot 169: HUGHIE LEE-SMITH, “Silhouette,” 1995 (oil on linen canvas). | Estimate $60,000-$90,000. Sold for $85,000 / $106,250 (including fees)

 


Lot 13: SARGENT JOHNSON (1888-1967), “Untitled (Negro Mother),” 1935-36 (copper with paint). | Estimate $80,000-$120,000. Sold for $80,000 / $100,000 (including fees). RECORD

 


Lot 58: WALTER WILLIAMS (1920-1988), “Untitled (Boy on Porch),” circa 1965 (oil and sand on masonite board). | Estimate $35,000-$50,000. Sold for $75,000 / $93,750 (including fees). RECORD

 


Lot 9: JAMES VANDERZEE, “Eighteen Photographs,” 1905-1938 (Portfolio of 18 mounted silver and sepia-toned silver prints, loose as issued). | Estimate $40,000-$60,000. Sold for $70,000 / $87,500 (including fees)

 


Lot 12: LESLIE GARLAND BOLLING (1898-1955), “Beautiful Womanhood,” (poplar wood). Estimate $7,000-$10,000. Sold for $19,000 / $24,700 (including fees). RECORD

 


Lot 99: TIMOTHY WASHINGTON (1946- ), “Raw Truth, 1970 (engraving on aluminum and assemblage, including cast iron, wood, nails, a zipper and a leather baseball mitt, with hand coloring). | Estimate $15,000-$25,000. Sold for $18,000 / $22,500 (including fees). RECORD

 


Lot 64: WILLIAM MAJORS (1930-1982), “Crucifixion,” 1963 (pen and ink on cream wove paper). | Estimate $7,000-$10,000. Sold for $9,500 / $11,875 (including fees). RECORD

 


Lot 180: EUGENE J. MARTIN (1938-2005), “Untitled,” 2000 (acrylic on cotton canvas). | Estimate $4,000-$6,000. Sold for $4,800 / $6,000 (including fees). RECORD

 


Lot 83: PRISCILLA “P’LLA” MILLS, “Blues Singer,” 1960 (welded bronze on a wood base). | Estimate $3,000-$5,000. Sold for $2,400 / $3,120 (including fees)