THE CHICAGO PUBLIC ART PROGRAM commissioned a seven-panel series of historic images by Carrie Mae Weems nearly 25 years ago. Composed of framed chromogenic prints and sandblasted text on glass, the untitled work was made in 1996-97 in an edition of three. The first set went to the Bee Branch of the Chicago Public Library and the third set was purchased the Penny McCall Foundation and gifted to Thurgood Marshall High School #16 in Harlem.

Johnson Publishing Company acquired the second set. Numbered 2/3, the work was auctioned at Swann Auction Galleries in New York on Jan. 30. The lot sold for $305,000 (including fees) setting a new auction record for Weems.

 


Lot 85: CARRIE MAE WEEMS (1953 -), “Untitled,” 1996-97 (seven panels of framed chromogenic prints and sandblasted text on glass, each 597 x 495 mm; 30 x 23 inches (prints); 851 x 660 mm / 33 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches (frames), Edition of 3 with 2 artist’s proofs. | Estimate $100,000-$150,000. Sold for $305,000 fees included ($250,000 hammer price ). RECORD

 

Swann’s first sale of the year and the decade featured a broad selection of African American art from the collection of Johnson Publishing. The works in the 87-lot sale were once on display in the Chicago offices of the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.

Founded in 1942 by John H. Johnson (1918-2005) and Eunice W. Johnson (1916-2010), the company established the publications in 1945 and 1951, respectively. Bibles of black culture and news, the magazines disseminating images of African Americans that defined black identity during an unprecedented period of progress and change.

Linda Johnson Rice, daughter of the founders, rose to CEO in 2002. Johnson Publishing has had a rocky run over the past decade. The auction brought to a close the final chapter of the iconic brand.

Weems is a pioneering and influential contemporary artist whose photography-based practice explores the dynamics of power structures. Her work was among the highlights of the sale. Nearly all the works featured in the auction date from the 1960s to mid-1970s. A handful of works produced in subsequent decades, through the 2000s, were also included, along with works by historic figures, such as Richmond Barthé, Elizabeth Catlett, Margaret Burroughs, William Edouard Scott, and Jacob Lawrence, frequently represented in Swann’s auctions.

 


Lot 58: FRANCIS A. SPROUT (1940-2017), “Azo,” 1971 (acrylic on cotton canvas, 2134 x 2134 mm / 84 x 84 inches). | Estimate $15,000-$25,000. Sold for $50,000 including fees (40,000 hammer price). AUCTION DEBUT

 

Nigel Freeman, director of the African-American Fine Art Department at Swann, wrote an introduction to the catalog. In the essay, he describes the variety of artists in the Johnson Publishing collection:

    While the inclusion of well-established artists like Chicagoans Margaret Burroughs and Ralph Arnold is not surprising, the range of contemporary artists from across the country, particularly from the South, is a revelation: several Southern artists like Shirley Bolton, G. Caliman Coxe, and Leo Twiggs stand out. The collection includes significant abstract painters, like Thomas Sills and Kenneth Victor Young, while embracing politically and socially conscious artists: Sherman Beck and Omar Lama of AfriCOBRA in Chicago, and Dindga McCannon of the Weusi Artist Collective in New York. Their artist collectives aimed to promote an Afrocentric point of view that was accessible to wider audiences and were part of the larger national Black Arts Movement. In addition, the collection includes a wide-ranging group of multimedia artists, like Marie Johnson Calloway, Ben Jones, and Jim Smoote, who defy traditional categories and materials with collage and assemblage while investigating the African-American experience.

JOHNSON PUBLISHING moved into its 11-story headquarters at 820 S. Michigan Avenue in 1971. Designed by architect John W. Moutoussamy, the tower was the first African American-owned building on Chicago’s famous Loop, and the only one in the downtown sector designed by a black architect.

The company showcased its impressive new corporate home in a lavish feature published in the September 1972 issue of Ebony magazine. Spread across 28 editorial pages, dozens of images capture the company’s modern interiors.

“Azo” (1971), a floor-to-ceiling abstract painting by Frances Allen Sprout is on view in a conference with rectangles of Hermes leather on the walls, hand-set to form a herringbone pattern. “Black Soul” (1971), a tall narrow painting on wood board by Mary Parks Washington, is on display in the office of the director of public affairs. “Two of Them,” a collage by Romare Bearden (not included in the auction), hangs in the executive dining room. Many of the artworks were shown publicly for the first time during the pre-sale exhibition at Swann.

 


Lot 50: DINDGA MCCANNON (1947-), “The Last Farewell,” 1970 (oil on cotton canvas, 1270 x 1067 mm / 50 x 42 inches). | Estimate $30,000-40,000. Sold for $161,000 fees included ($130,000 hammer price). COVER LOT, AUCTION DEBUT

 

MOST NOTABLY, the sale included 24 auction debuts (Sprout among them) and another 27 artist records, according to Swann. The two dozen African American artists introduced to the auction market, figures such as Valerie J. Maynard, Herbert Bruce, and Gloria R. Bohanon are a testament to the singular nature of the Johnson Publishing holdings and to the company’s determination, perhaps, to acquire works beyond the well-known and acclaimed African American artists popular in the last half of the 20th century.

A major painting by Dindga McCannon appeared at auction for the first time. “The Last Farewell” (1970) by McCannon graced the cover of the auction catalog. A two-figure color-blocked composition, the painting sold for $161,000, four times the high estimate and the fourth highest result in the sale. McCannon was present at the auction, which the auctioneer announced from the podium. When the bidding concluded, he called the result a world record and said, “Congratulations!” and clapping ensued.

A standing portrait, “Jack Johnson” (1970) by Robin Harper (Kwasi Seitu Asante) appeared on the cover of the March 1978 issue of Ebony magazine, illustrating a feature about heavyweight champions. Another auction debut, the painting was expected to sell in a modest range ($3,000-$5,000), and shot up to $185,000, thirty-seven times the estimate. At one point, in reaction to the continuous bidding, someone in the sales room said, “Damn!” When the hammer came down, concluding the sale, the audience clapped.

 


Lot 33: WALTER H. WILLIAMS (1920-1998), “White Butterfly,” 1969 (oil on linen canvas, 610 x 711 mm / 24 x 28 inches. Sold for $125,000 including fees ($100,000 hammer price). RECORD

 

THE NUMEROUS AUCTION RECORDS were among some of the top lots. “Departure” (2006), an abstract landscape by Richard Mayhew, sold for $233,000, an artist record and the third highest result in the sale. From Lois Mailou Jones, “Bazar Du Quai, Port Au Prince, Haiti” (1961) sold for $75,000, a high mark for the artist.

“White Butterfly” by Walter H. Williams sold for $125,000, also a new artist record. Johnson Publishing acquired the Williams painting from Terry Dintenfass Gallery in New York. Dintenfass died in 2004 and the headline on her New York Times obituary described her as “a dealer outside the mainstream.”

The article said Dintenfass represented the estate of Horace Pippin and built a pioneering roster: “At a time when nearly all artists showing in New York galleries were white, she represented several black artists, most notably Jacob Lawrence, but also Raymond Saunders, Richard Hunt and Walter Williams, a little-known painter whose work she showed in her first gallery, which was in Atlantic City.”

Many of the works in the Johnson Publishing collection were acquired directly from the artists. Provenance information included on a few other lots referenced Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles and Isobel Neal Gallery in Chicago, two black-owned galleries now shuttered.

 


Lot 1: HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859 – 1937), “Moonrise by Kasbah (Morocco),” 1912 (oil on linen canvas, 540 x 724 mm / 21 1/2 x 28 1/2 inches). | Estimate $150,000-$250,000. Sold for $365,000 fees included ($300,000 hammer price). TOP LOT

 

THE FIRST LOT IN THE AUCTION was also the top lot. “Moonrise by Kasbah (Morocco)” (1912) by Henry Ossawa Tanner opened the sale. An early 20th century nocturnal scene, the painting sold for $365,000 including fees (the artist’s second-highest price at auction).

With numerous artists having little or no auction history, many of the estimates proved exceedingly low. Similar to the Harper painting, several lots had incredible results, selling for 10 to nearly 60 times their estimates, exponentially exceeding expectations. South African artist Peter E. Clarke’s “Summer Evening” (1960) was expected to sell for $2,000-$3,000 and reached $37,500.

“Africa: The Source” (1967) by Larry Erskine Thomas sold for $52,500 against an estimate of $1,000-$1,5000. Thomas was an artist, educator, and museum exhibition designer. From 1967 through the 1970s, he served as programs manager at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (which is now called the Anacostia Community Museum).

Barbara Johnson Zuber’s “Jump Rope” (1970) was estimated at $1,000-$1,5000 and sold for $87,500, more than 58 times the high estimate. Zuber is the first black woman to earn a BFA from Yale University. Born in Philadelphia, she lived with her family in Troy, N.Y., for nearly 50 years until her death last year at age 93.

 


Lot 83: ROBIN HARPER (KWASI SEITU ASANTE), (1942-), “Jack Johnson,” 1970 (oil on linen canvas, 1270 x 762 mm / 50 x 30 inches). | Estimate $3,000-$5,000. Sold for $185,000 fees included ($150,000 hammer price). AUCTION DEBUT

 

THE ART AUCTION was the latest in a succession of liquidations. One-by-one, the assets of Johnson Publishing have been sold off. In January 2011, the S. Michigan Avenue headquarters were sold to Columbia College Chicago. (The building was re-sold in 2017 to a developer who is turning the property into luxury apartments.) In June 2016, Clear View Group, a black-owned private equity firm in Texas, bought Ebony and Jet magazines. The historic publications were the company’s flagship businesses.

In April 2019, Johnson Publishing filed for bankruptcy. The company’s photography and video archive was purchased for $30 million in July 2019 by a consortium of four foundations on behalf of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute.

In November, the Fashion Fair cosmetics line was sold for $1.85 million to an investment group that included Desiree Rogers, the former CEO of Johnson Publishing (2010-2017). Three auctions were held at Hindman in Chicago to dispense of couture clothing featured in the Ebony Fashion Fair runway shows over the years. The last auction of men’s and women’s fashions was held online Dec. 6. Last month, the art collection was the final asset to go.

The Chicago Tribune reported proceeds from the auction would go to Rogers to pay back $2.7 million in loans she made to Johnson Publishing and address “other secured claims” against the company. next week from a Chicago federal bankruptcy judge.

“Desiree will have the first cut at the art auction proceeds,” Neville Reid told the Tribune. A Chicago bankruptcy attorney, Reid is working with the court-appointed the trustee to assess and sell the company’s assets and pay creditors.

The auction had a 100 percent sell-through rate. All of the lots sold and yielded more than twice the high estimate ($800,300-$1,229,850) with an overall sales total of $2,967,055 fees included (the hammer price was $2,394,500). After the last lot sold, the record-breaking Mayhew painting, the sales room erupted in applause. CT

 

FIND MORE View the 3-D catalog for the African-American Art from the Johnson Publishing Company sale

 

BOOKSHELF
“Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art” documents a Studio Museum in Harlem exhibition exploring the ways Ebony and Jet magazines have inspired artists and the work. David Hartt was given unprecedented access to document the Johnson Publishing headquarters building in Chicago. “Stray Light” presents the series of photographs, which “capture the distinct physical characteristics while also illuminating the power structures and ideological purposes they once represented.”

 


Lot 87: RICHARD MAYHEW (1924-), “Departure,” 2006 (oil on linen canvas, 1219 x 1524 mm / 48 x 60 inches). | Estimate $50,000-$75,000. Sold for $233,000 fees included ($190,000 hammer price). RECORD

 


Lot 17: PETER E. CLARKE (1929-2014), “Summer Evening,” 1960 (gouache on paper, 559 x 432 mm / 22×17 inches). | Estimate $2,000-$3,000. Sold for $37,500 fees included ($30,000 hammer price)

 


Lot 19: LARRY ERSKINE THOMAS (1917 – 1986), “Africa: The Source,” 1967 (oil on cotton canvas, 762 x 762 mm / 30 x 30 inches). | Estimate $1,000-41,5000. Sold for $52,500 fees included ($42,000 hammer). AUCTION DEBUT

 


Lot 9: LOÏS MAILOU JONES (1905-1998), “Bazar Du Quai, Port Au Prince, Haiti,” 1961 (oil on linen canvas, 667 x 940 mm / 26 1/4 x 37 inches). | Estimate $20,000-$30,000. Sold for $75,000 including fees ($60,000 hammer price). RECORD

 


Lot 24: JIM S. SMOOTE II (1950-), Two fabric works: “Untitled (Three Women),” 1969 (looped and woven wool on a stitched felt and burlap, Approximately 914 x 1117 mm / 36 x 44 inches); and “Untitled (Watermelon),” 1971 (looped wool tapestry, 1219 x 610 mm / 48 x 24 inches). | Estimate $500-$750. Sold for $16,250 including fees ($13,000). AUCTION DEBUT

 


Lot 26: MARY PARKS WASHINGTON (1924-2019), “Black Soul,” 1971 (tempera on found wood, approximately 1473 x 24 mm / 58 x 10 inches. | Estimate $500-$750. Sold for $16,250 fees included ($13,000 hammer price). AUCTION DEBUT

 


Lot 29: CLEMENTINE HUNTER (1886-1988), “Untitled (Leaving Church Sunday),” 1970 (oil on canvas board, 406 x 508 mm / 16 x 20 inches). | Estimate $3,000-$5,000. Sold for $18,750 including fees ($15,000 hammer price)

 


Lot 32: LEO F. TWIGGS (1934-), “Henry Lee’s World,” 1969 (batik and color pastels on cotton canvas, mounted to plywood, 965 x 914 mm / 38 x 36 inches). | Estimate $3,000-$5,000. Sold for $25,000 fees included ($20,000 hammer price). RECORD

 


Lot 40: RALPH ARNOLD (1928-2006), Drexel Square, 1968 (oil, acrylic and collage on linen canvas, 1473 x 1473 mm / 58 x 58 inches. | Estimate $4,000-$6,000. Sold for $18,750 fees included ($15,000 hammer price). RECORD

 


Lot 48: HERB BRUCE, “We’re Tired of Grinding,” 1968-70 (mixed media and newspaper collage on Strathmore illustration board, circa 1968-70. 1016×686 mm; 40×27 inches). | Estimate $3,000-$5,000. Sold for $37,500 fees included ($30,000 hammer price). AUCTION DEBUT

 


Lot 51: BARBARA JOHNSON ZUBER, “Jump Rope,” circa 1970 (oil on cotton canvas, 762 x 1524 mm / 30 x 60 inches). | Estimate $1,000-$1,500. Sold for $87,500 fees included ($70,000 hammer price). AUCTION DEBUT

 


Lot 55: KENNETH VICTOR YOUNG (1933-2017), “Upper Egypt,” 1971 (acrylic on cotton canvas, 1829 x 1829 mm 72 x 72 inches). | Estimate $80,000-$120,000. Sold for $87,500 including fees ($70,000 hammer price)

 


Lot 68: GLORIA R. BOHANON (1941 – ), “Who Reflects Who,” 1970 (oil and enamel paint on thin board, 610 x 457 mm / 24 x 18 inches). | Estimate $2,0000-$3,000. Sold for $22,500 fees included ($ hammer price). AUCTION DEBUT

 


Lot 77: ELIZABETH CATLETT (1915-2012), “Sister,” 1973 (cast bronze, with a brushed patina and white inlaid eyes, mounted on a wooden base, pproximately 330 x 254 x 165 mm / 13 x 10 x 6 1/2 inches, not including the base). | Estimate $50,000-$75,000. Sold for $149,000 fees included ($120,000 hammer price)

 

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