THE LATEST AFRICAN-AMERICAN FINE ART SALE at Swann Auction Galleries was five-and-a-half hours. There were 187 lots and the high point came early on when Lot 10, a cast bronze sculpture by Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) sold for more than half a million dollars. “Feral Benga” garnered sustained interest and was bid up to about 12 times the mid-estimate of $40,000-$60,000. The sculpture eventually sold for $629,000, including fees, a record for Barthé.

After pausing its auction schedule in the wake of COVID-19, Swann held its first African American art sale June 4. Originally planned for April 2, the auction was conducted remotely.

 


Lot 10: RICHMOND BARTHÉ (1901-1989), “Feral Benga,” modeled in 1935, cast in 1986 (cast bronze, with a dark brown patina, approx. 483 mm / 19 inches high, not including the marble base), Numbered 1/10. | Estimate: $40,000-$60,000. Sold for $629,000 fees included (Hammer price $520,000). RECORD

 

Buyers were able to place advance order bids and limited real-time phone bidding was also available. Most of the bidding was live online, where bidders could watch principal auctioneer Nicholas D. Lowry conduct the sale. With his back to the camera, viewers observed Lowry monitoring online bids and watching his screen where a gallery view of Swann staff could be seen conveying phone bids from their homes.

The version of “Feral Benga” that sold was modeled in 1935 and cast in 1986. The Barthé work is from an edition of 10 and numbered 1/10. Swann has handled the sculpture previously. On Feb. 14, 2013, number 9/10 sold for $43,200. The six-figure result achieved earlier this month, arose out of a competition.

“We had a number of interested parties who together swiftly bid the lot up to around $100,000, but the bidding quickly became a battle between two very determined collectors. Feral Benga is the sculptor’s best-known work and a notable artwork from the Harlem Renaissance making it a desirable work for collectors,” Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American Fine Art department said in a statement.

Originally acquired from Barthé by Samella Lewis, “Feral Benga” was commissioned for sale from a private collection in Atlanta. The sculpture is a signature work by the artist, representing “a study of the figure in sculpture, anatomy and dance in the 1930s, and his pioneering realization of an ideal male nude.” The winning bid was a record for Barthé and the lot topped the sale.

“We had a number of interested parties who together swiftly bid the lot up to around $100,000, but the bidding quickly became a battle between two very determined collectors.” — Nigel Freeman


Lot 50: JOHN BIGGERS (1924-2001), “Women, Ghana,” circa 1960 (oil on mastonite board, 826 x 1016 mm / 32 x 40 inches). | Estimate $120,000-$180,000. Sold for $269,000 fees included (Hammer price $220,000)

 


Lot 76: ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009), “New Shoes,” circa 1970 (acrylic on cotton canvas, 57 x 610 mm / 18 x 24 inches). | Estimate $20,000-$30,000. Sold for 68,750 fees included (Hammer price $55,000). RECORD

 

Other top-selling lots included “Women, Ghana” (circa 1965) by John Biggers, which sold for $269,000; Romare Bearden‘s “Aphrodite” (1973), the cover lot going for $106,250; and an “Untitled” collage painting by David Hammons, an image of two fists raised in the air and shackled at the wrists, that reached $137,000.

The 1965 work by Hammons was consigned by a private collector in Washington, D.C., who was roommates with the artist at Los Angeles Community College, according to the lot description. Referencing slavery or incarceration, a form of bondage, the artwork was a wedding present from Hammons in 1966. A gesture rife with wit and symbolism? Swann described the work as the earliest by Hammons to come to auction.

Five paintings by Ernie Barnes were offered in the sale, all from the same party, a California collector who acquired the works directly from the artist. One of them set a new record for the late football player-turned-artist. “New Shoes” (circa 1970), depicting a man strutting down the block in his “new shoes” while three others look on with envy, sold for $68,750.

The price bested the artist’s previous record, which was set in 2017, also at Swann, when “Maestro” sold for $47,500. Two additional Barnes paintings in the current sale also surpassed that price: “Pool Hustlers” (circa 1969) at $55,000 and “In the Beginning” (circa 1970) at $57,500.

Abstract works by two important late 20th century artists performed well. “Together” (1971), a round “tondo” painting by Betty Blayton, reached nearly four times the high estimate, an artist record at $35,000. An Untitled (1981) painting from Al Loving‘s Wild Goose Lake Series garnered more than three times expectations, also reaching $35,000.

Five paintings by Ernie Barnes were offered in the sale, all from the same party, a California collector who acquired the works directly from the artist.


Lot 87: BETTY BLAYTON (1937-2016), “Together,” 1971 (oil and collage on cotton canvas, 750 mm / 29 1/2 inches diameter, tondo). | Estimate: $6,000-$9,000. Sold for $35,000 fees included (Hammer price $28,000). RECORD

 


Lot 143: EMMA AMOS (1938-2020), “A Well Balanced Meal,” 1990 (acrylic and fabric collage on linen canvas, with Kente cloth border, 864 x 991 mm / 34 x 39 inches). | Estimated $30,000-$40,000. Sold for $87,500 fees included (Hammer price $70,000)

 

“A Well Balanced Meal” (1990) is an acrylic and fabric collage painting by Emma Amos, who died last month. Depicting falling figures, the painting sold for more than twice the high estimate, bringing $87,500. A quilt with appliqué fabrics, buttons, and paint, “Escaping the Slave Ship Henrietta Marie” (2006) by Michael Cummings sold at the high end of the estimate for $30,000, a new record for the artist.

A widely recognized quilter based in Harlem, Cummings consigned his own work for sale, which means he reaped the proceeds. According to the lot description, he moved from Los Angeles to New York in 1970 and befriended Romare Bearden. Cummings “experimented with collage in various media, and by 1975, had moved strictly to fabric.”

Artist Michael Cummings moved from Los Angeles to New York in 1970 and befriended Romare Bearden. Cummings “experimented with collage in various media, and by 1975, had moved strictly to fabric.”

Meanwhile, two works by LaToya Ruby Frazier marked her auction debut. “Gramps on His Bed” (2002) and “Grandma Ruby’s Porcelain Dolls” (2004), a pair of silver prints, sold for $10,625 and $9,375, respectively. A social documentary photographer, Frazier built her practice around images of her family and her hometown of Braddock, Pa., where a local steel plant was the primary employer. She draws on their generational story to convey a larger narrative about negative health outcomes and social and economic decline in post-industrial communities around the country.

The auction began at 1 pm and unfolded throughout the entire afternoon. 165 of the 187 lots sold found buyers, yielding an 88 percent sell-through rate by lot. The sale resulted in a dozen new artist records, according to Swann. In addition to the new benchmarks for Barthé, Barnes, Blayton and Cummings, artists Edward L. Loper Sr., Geoffrey Holder, Richard Dempsey, Emilio Cruz, James W. Washington Jr., Lucille Malkia Roberts, Suzanne Jackson, and Francks Deceus, saw new auction highs. CT

 

(Disclosure: Representing Culture Type, I participated in an Instagram live conversation with Nigel Freeman of Swann Auction Galleries on June 3, the day before the auction. We discussed the state of the African American art market.)

 

FIND MORE about Richmond Barthé’s “Feral Benga” from art historian Margaret Rose Vendryes

FIND MORE about a version of Barthe’s “Feral Benga” that sold June 14, 2020, for $87,500 at Sloans & Kenyon auction house in Chevy Chase, Md. The work is from a different casting circa 1960

 

FIND MORE about artist resale rights and “why American artists should benefit” from them

 


Lot 21: JACOB LAWRENCE (1917-2000), “Cutting Logs #51,” 1942 (gouache, watercolor and ink on cream wove paper, 533 x 737 mm / 21 x 29 inches, image); 584 x 737 mm / 23×31 inches, sheet). | Estimate $250,000-$350,000. UNSOLD

 


Lot 55: EMILIO CRUZ (1938-2004), “Figurative Composition #5,” 1964 (oil on thick linen canvas, 813 x 1016 mm / 32 x 40 inches). | Estimate $6,000-$9,000. Sold for $16,250 fees included (Hammer price $13,000). RECORD

 


Lot 69: DAVID HAMMONS (1943-), “Untitled,” 1965 (paper collage and tempera on masonite board, 609 x 381 mm / 24 x 15 inches). | Estimate: $120,000-$180,000. Sold for $137,000 fees included (Hammer price $110,000)

 


Lot 94: ROMARE BEARDEN (1911-1988), “Aphrodite,” 1973 (collage and acrylic, with pencil and ink, on board, 610 x 457 mm / 24 x 18 inches). | Estimate: $40,000-$60,000. Sold for $106,250 fees included (Hammer price $85,000). COVER LOT

 


Lot 152: SUZANNE JACKSON (1944-), “High Frost,” 1982 (acrylic on canvas, 381 x 381 mm / 15 x 15 inches). | Estimate: $7,000-$10,000. Sold for $9,375 fees included (Hammer price $7,500). RECORD

 


Lot 173: MICHAEL A. CUMMINGS (1945-), “Escaping the Slave Ship Henrietta Marie,” 2006 (quilt with appliqué, including African fabrics, buttons and textile paint, 2286 x 1702 mm, 90 67 inches). | Estimate $20,000-$30,000. Sold for $30,000 fees included (Hammer price $24,000). RECORD

 


Lot 176: SIMONE LEIGH (1967-), “Untitled,” 2001 (salt-fired stoneware, approximately 625 mm high, 25 inches high). | Estimate $60,000-$90,000. Sold for $75,000 fees included (Hammer price $60,000)

 


Lot 183: LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER (1982-), “Gramps on His Bed,” 2002 (silver print, 364 x 495 mm / 14 3/4 x 19 1/4 inches). | Estimate: $4,000-$6,000. Sold for 10,625 fees included (Hammer price $8,500). AUCTION DEBUT

 

BOOKSHELF
“Barthe: A Life in Sculpture” is by Margaret Rose Vendryes with a foreword by Jeffrey C. Stewart. “LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Notion of Family” is the first book to explore the social documentary photographer’s practice. Painter Ernie Barnes share his story of transitioning from football to art in “Pads to Palette.” Betty Blayton is among the black female artists featured in the exhibition catalog “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today.”

 

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