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WADSWORTH JARRELL’s 1973 “Untitled (African Rhythm, Our Heritage)” achieved an artist’s record at Swann’s Oct. 6 sale of African American art.


WHEN THE HAMMER CAME DOWN, a brief round of applause followed the sale of Wadsworth Jarrell‘s “Untitled (African Rhythm, Our Heritage).” The vibrant mixed-media painting sold for $78,000 ($97,500 including fees), more than twice the high estimate and, according to Swann Auction Galleries, a record for the artist. Interest in the 1973 work ranked it among the top five lots at Swann’s African-American Fine Art sale on Oct. 6. It was a surprising moment in an afternoon that yielded seven additional records and at times lukewarm responses to heavily promoted, high-value lots. There were 173 lots in the auction and the sell through rate was 77 percent.

“The sale was very good overall. In addition to building on successes, I always try to broaden the market with new artists or works from artist’s periods not seen at auction. Our top lot Norman Lewis’ “Block Island” was his first 1970s oil on canvas to come to auction. There are always lulls in a large sale but there were decided high points in all the periods,” Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American Fine Art Department told Culture Type by email.

“The sale was very good overall. …There are always lulls in a large sale but there were decided high points in all the periods.” — Nigel Freeman, Director of Swann’s African-American Fine Art Department

swann-african-american-fine-art-oct-6-2016A 1973 painting by Sam Gilliam covered the catalog. Sale selections spanned an 1877 painting by Edward Bannister, works by 20th century masters such as Romare Bearden, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett, and contemporary artists David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems. Compelling works by less familiar names such as James Little, Sam Middleton, Robert Neal and Thelma Johnson Streat, also appeared in the auction.

Post-war and 1970s abstract paintings led the sale. These were the top lots:

    1. “Block Island,” an intense blue 1975 painting by Norman Lewis was the top lot, surpassing the estimate and realizing $200,000 ($245,000 including fees).

    2. Sam Gilliam‘s “What Did You In London Town?,” an experimental color field painting, graced the cover of the sale catalog. The 1973 beveled-edge canvas sold for $140,000 ($173,000 including fees) in the mid-range of its estimate.

    3. Bidding on “Birds in Flight,” another Norman Lewis painting, fell short of the estimate. The 1953 canvas, recently discovered and publicly exhibited for the first time for the sale, brought $120,000 ($149,000 including fees).

    4. “Three Solid Questions,” a unique lot by Alvin D. Loving Jr., barely met the reserve. Exhibited at Loving’s 1969-70 solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art, the 1969 triptych sold for $80,000 ($100,000 including fees) against an estimate of $120,000-$180,000.

    5. A record for the artist, “Untitled (African Rhythm, Our Heritage)” by Wadsworth Jarrell, a prominent figure in the Black Arts Movement and a co-founder of AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), sold for $78,000 ($97,500 including fees).

According to Swann, a collector purchased “Block Island,” the top lot by Lewis, and art dealers/gallery owners placed the winning bids on the works by Gilliam, Loving, and “Birds in Flight” by Lewis. An un-named institution acquired the painting by Jarrell.


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Lot 93: NORMAN LEWIS (1909-1979), “Block Island,” 1975 (oil on canvas, 1975). Estimate $120,000-$180,000. | Sold for $200,000 ($245,000 including fees).


JARRELL’S WORK WAS AMONG a number of lots carrying relatively moderate estimates that excited bidders and made news. Among them, a rare offering by James Van Der Zee. Issued in 1974, a portfolio of 18 Van Der Zee photographs (mounted silver and sepia-toned silver prints) set an artist record. The Harlem images from 1905-1938, sold for $70,000 ($87,500 including fees).

“Genesis,” a 1966 watercolor by Alma Thomas, from the Barnett Aden collection, yielded nearly twice the high estimate, selling for $52,000 ($65,000 including fees), an artist record for a work on paper. An exhibition of paintings and watercolors by Thomas is currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

A painting of a woman with big eyes and a big afro, a pensive gaze, and what appears to be a protective shadow against a patterned background sold for nearly three times the estimate. “Engagement” by Philadelphia artist Columbus Knox realized $44,000 ($55,000 including fees), an artist record.

Relative to the stated estimates, a number of buyers landed bargains by choice artists. “Untitled (Abstraction),” a circa 1960 canvas by Felrath Hines sold for $22,000 ($27,500 including fees) against an estimate of $30,000-$40,000. Charles White‘s “Solid as a Rock (My God is Rock),” a 1958 linoleum cut and “Solo,” a 1996 painting by Hughie-Lee Smith, each sold for $12,000 ($15,000 including fees), hovering below the estimates of $15,000-$25,000.

Others paid a premium. For example, there was sustained interest in “Jazz is as Free as a Bird,” a lively abstract painting by Sam Middleton which garnered more than double its high estimate, selling for $6,500 ($8,125 including fees). A Harlem-native, Middleton (1927-2015) moved to the Netherlands in the 1960s, where he taught and continued his painting practice. Similarly, “Jewels Theme V,” a 1985 color etching by Eldzier Cortor sold for twice the high estimate.


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Lot 83: ALMA W. THOMAS (1891 – 1978), “Genesis,” 1966 (watercolor on thick wove paper). | Estimate $20,000-$30,000. Sold for $52,000 ($65,000 including fees).


AT THE SAME TIME, 38 lots went unsold. Seven works by Romare Bearden did not sell, most prominently, “All the Things You Are,” a 1987 mixed-media painting carrying an estimate of $120,000-$180,000, and “A Land Beyond the River,” one of his earliest known collages. Bearden made the 1957 colored paper collage for an off-Broadway play bearing the same title, written by his friend Loften Mitchell.

The catalog features a six page spread devoted to four recently discovered wood block prints by William H. Johnson that failed to find buyers. Created circa 1930-38, the works were found in an old suitcase in an attic in Denmark by the descendants of Holcha Krake, the artist’s Danish wife.

Other attractive lots including “Sharecropper” (1952) by Elizabeth Catlett, three issues of Kerry James Marshall‘s “Rythm Mastr” comics (1999-2000), and a circa 1970 abstract still life by California painter Dan Concholar, also went unsold. A contemporary of John Outterbridge and David Hammons, Concholar was a student of artist Charles White at what was then called the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Concholar famously transported a briefcase belonging to White from Los Angeles to New York in 1979. Full of personal items, artifacts and art supplies, for 30 years it remained undisturbed in the archives of Just Above Midtown Gallery. The time capsule was discovered several years ago and was included in the exhibition “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles.”

Meanwhile, four additional artist records were achieved at the sale: Edward Bannister‘s 1877 painting “Untitled (Cow Herd in Pastoral Landscape),” sold for $60,000 ($75,000 including fees); Kara Walker‘s “African-American” $30,000 ($37,500), reached a high mark for a work on paper by the artist; An untitled 1994 painting by Ed Clark yielded $24,000 ($30,000); and “The Primary Suspect,” a 2000 painting by James Little reached $20,000 ($25,000). CT


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Lot 171: JAMES LITTLE (1952 – ), “The Primary Suspect,” 2000 (oil on linen canvas). | Estimate $15,000-$25,000. Sold for $20,000 ($25,000 including fees).


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Lot 57: FELRATH HINES (1913 – 1993), “Untitled (Abstraction),” circa 1960 (oil on linen canvas). | Estimate $30,000-$40,000. Sold for $22,000 ($27,500 including fees).


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Lot 82: SAM GILLIAM (1933 – ), “What Did You In London Town?” 1973 (acrylic on cotton canvas). | Estimate $120,000-$180,000. Sold for $140,000 ($173,000 including fees).


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Lot 46: NORMAN LEWIS (1909 – 1979), “Birds In Flight,” 1953 (oil and metallic paint on linen canvas). | Estimate $150,000-$250,000. Sold for $120,000 ($149,000 including fees).


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Lot 154: HUGHIE LEE-SMITH (1915 – 1999), “Solo,” (oil on linen canvas). | Estimate $15,000-$25,000. Sold for $12,000 ($15,000 including fees).


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Lot 52: ROMARE BEARDEN (1911 – 1988), “A Land Beyond the River,” 1957 (collage with various colored papers, with pencil and red ink, mounted on cream wove paper). | Estimate $75,000-$100,000. UNSOLD


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Lot 3: EDWARD M. BANNISTER (1828 – 1901), “Untitled (Cow Herd in Pastoral Landscape),” 1877 (oil on linen canvas). | Estimate $35,000-$50,000. Sold for $60,000 ($75,000 including fees).


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Lot 94: SAM MIDDLETON (1927 – 2015), “Jazz Is Free As A Bird,” 1972 (mixed media, oil and collage on board). | Estimate $2,000-$3,000. Sold for $6,500 ($8,125 including fees).


Swann’s Nigel Freeman notes Al Loving was the first of several African American artists to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum. “Three Solid Questions,” a 1969 triptych by the artist was exhibited at his 1969-70 show at the museum. The unique painting sold at the Oct. 6 auction for $80,000 ($100,000 including fees) well below the estimate. | Video by Swann Auction Galleries


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