ABSTRACT, INVENTIVE, AND IMPROVISATIONAL, quilts by Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2006) are extraordinary works of contemporary art. Tompkins was invested in color, shape, and form; worked with velvet, faux fur, and shimmery fabrics; and despite her singular aesthetic, frequently incorporated traditional quilt patterns into her work, adapting them to her own creative and irregular interpretations.

On Oct. 21, four quilts by Tompkins sold at Bonhams in Los Angeles marking the first time the artist’s work appeared at a major auction house. Made in the decade between 1987 and 1997, the untitled works have traces of Pinwheel patterns and include descriptors such as “Black and White Geometric Quilt” and “Multicolor Patchwork Quilt.” The lots were well received, attracting numerous bids, and final prices that far-exceeded the estimates.

Lot 184: ROSIE LEE TOMPKINS (EFFIE MAE HOWARD), (1936-2006), “Untitled (Pieced Quilt with Black Border),” 1992 (velvet, velveteen and small patches of other fabric, 56 x 38 inches / 142.2 x 96.5 cm), Quilted by Irene Bankhead. | Estimate Sold for ($70,000 hammer price) $87,812 fees included. RECORD


Born Effie Mae Howard in Arkansas, out of concerns for her privacy, the artist later adopted the pseudonym Rosie Lee Tompkins. She first learned to quilt as a child from her mother. She returned to the art form in the 1970s and began to quilt seriously in the 1980s, when she was living in Richmond, Calif.

Her works are informed by her spiritual beliefs. Tompkins often introduced Biblical symbolism and employed embroidery to stitch prayers and scripture into her quilts. She payed homage to family members in her designs and further expressed herself with recycled clothing, using t-shirt scraps that featured graphics and text reflecting her political, cultural, and social concerns.

In 1997, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) presented her first solo exhibition. A generation later, BAMPFA revisited Tompkins’s work, hosting “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective,” the largest and most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to her practice to date. The show featured about 65 works and was on view through July 18.

FOUR MONTHS AFTER the landmark exhibition closed, four quilts by Tompkins came to auction. The works far outpaced their estimates, with results about 10 times expectations. The estimates ranged from $3,000 to $8,000 and, each garnering more than a dozen bids, the quilts sold for more than $35,000 to nearly $88,000.

The final lot in the group, “Untitled (Pieced Quilt with Black Border)” (above) was composed with velvet, velveteen, and other fabrics. The 1992 quilt brought the highest price, selling for $87,812 and establishing a new record for the artist.

Lot 181: ROSIE LEE TOMPKINS (EFFIE MAE HOWARD), (1936-2006), “Half-Squares (Black and White Geometric Quilt),” 1987 (velvet, velveteen, 55 x 49 inches / 139.7 x 124.5 cm), Quilted by Willa Ette Graham and Johnnie Wade. | Estimate $6,000-$8,000. Sold for ($28,000 hammer price) $35,312 fees included. AUCTION DEBUT


The quilts were featured in Bonhams Modern Design | Art sale. Acquired directly from Tompkins by collector Eli Leon (1935-2018), the works changed hands two more times before being consigned for sale, according to the provenance listed in the lot descriptions.

Leon, who was white, was a voracious and dedicated collector of Tompkins and many other African American quilters, becoming a scholar in the field. He made a posthumous donation of more than 3,000 quilts by more than 400 artists to BAMPFA in October 2019.

A massive trove, the Leon Collection includes more than 500 works by Tompkins. Leon and Tompkins first met in 1985 at an Oakland-area flea market where she was selling her transcendent works. The artist and collector became friends and he was an early champion of her practice. The majority of her entire body of work is housed in the Leon Collection and BAMPFA’s landmark retrospective of her work was based almost exclusively on the works donated by Leon.

BAMPFA hosted “Re-visioning the Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins,” a colloquium on the artist, in February 2020. Horace Ballard, who was recently appointed associate curator of American art at Harvard Art Museums, contributed to the forthcoming exhibition catalog and was among the speakers featured at event.

“Tompkins’s pieces are not quilts. They are not meant to keep a body warm. They are not meant to comfort. They are meant to keep the mind and the heart electric, pulsing, malleable, and searching for God,” Ballard said. “As works of art, her work cannot be touched in the gallery, yet everything about their materiality begs to be held, felt, explored with open palm, to be encountered. And is that not how we encountered the divine?” CT


FIND MORE Bonhams also offered two untitled quilts from 1992 by Arbie Williams (1916-2003) as one lot, marking the artist’s major auction debut. The works sold for $7,012 fees included ($5,500 hammer price) exceeding the estimate ($1,500-$2,500). Known for incorporating jeans into his quilts, Williams is represented among the artists whose works Eli Leon gifted to BAMPFA


FIND MORE “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective,” was displayed at BAMPFA for nearly a year and a half, but was only open to the public for a few months, due to the museum’s 13-month COVID-19 closure. After opening in February 2020, the museum closed in March and didn’t reopen until May 2021. Originally scheduled through December 2020, the exhibition was extended until July 18, 2021


READ MORE about facts and analysis around gaining resale royalty rights from auction sales for artists and their estates


Lot 182: ROSIE LEE TOMPKINS (EFFIE MAE HOWARD), (1936-2006), “Untitled (Black and Red Geometric Quilt),” circa 1989 (velvet and velveteen, 50 1/2 x 50 inches / 128.3 x 127 cm), Quilted by Irene Bankhead. | Estimate $5,000-$7,000. Sold for ($35,000 hammer price) $44,062 fees included


Lot 183: ROSIE LEE TOMPKINS (EFFIE MAE HOWARD), (1936-2006), “Untitled (Multicolor Patchwork Quilt),” circa 1997 (velveteen and other fabrics with yarn ties, 31 3/4 x 24 inches / 80.6 x 61 cm). Estimate $3,000-$5,000. Sold for ($30,000 hammer price) $37,812 fees included


A catalog documenting “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective” at the the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is forthcoming. “Rosie Lee Tompkins: Something Pertaining to God” by Eli Leon was published by the Shelburne Museum in 2006. “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” was recently published and features the work of Faith Ringgold, Sanford Biggers, Bisa Butler, Harriet Powers, and Creola Pettway, among other artists. Also consider these fully illustrated volumes exploring the work of the Gee’s Bend quilt artists: “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” “Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts,” and “Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt.”


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