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Art Market Watch


by Daniel Grant
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As though dipping its toe into the water to test the temperature, the sale at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers on Mar. 1, 2012, of 39 artworks made exclusively by African-American artists is a cautious move into a new realm for the Chicago-based auction house. Still, this is the first of what is slated to be twice-yearly sales of African-American art, which stemmed from the realization that “there is a strong community of collectors of African-American art in our city,” Hindman said. “A lot of people have told me that I should do auctions of African-American art. I considered the idea and decided that it actually makes a lot of sense.”

Leslie Hindman’s Chicago outfit now joins Swann Galleries, which is based in Manhattan, as the only two auction houses in the country that hold sales dedicated to African-American art. Art by African-American artists is a rather wide category, but it is also one that shows a lot of upside potential.

Swann launched its twice-yearly African-American art sales in early 2007. “It was an idea whose time had come,” said Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American Art department. “Previously, we had integrated African-American art into the Works on Paper department, but it was in a 2006 sale that an untitled Romare Bearden collage from ca. 1964 broke the $100,000 barrier -- the highest price for one of those works at the time.”

Freeman claims that despite the obvious interest in African-American art, the area was “uncharted territory. No one had seen many prices for this work at auction,” he went on. However, creating an entire African-American department and arranging sales of work by artists that had never before appeared at auction helped to increase their prominence, and thereby to generate interest and raise prices.

Aiding that rise in stature were purchases by museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art’s $18,000 purchase in 2010 of Norman Lewis’ 1949 City Night, an abstract oil on wood that was included in MoMA’s 2011 exhibition “Abstract Expressionist New York.” In a 2008 sale at Swann’s, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts acquired three African-American works, including Hughie Lee-Smith’s The Juggler #1, ca. 1964, for which it paid $312,000 -- the highest public sale price for an abstract work of art by any African-American artist.

Quite a few of those urging Leslie Hindman to hold specialist sales of African-American art were bidders at last summer’s sale of couture items from the collection of the Ebony Fashion Fair. This material was collected by the late Eunice W. Johnson and consigned to Leslie Hindman by Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who is chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. -- the publisher of EBONY and JET magazines.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the world’s two largest auction houses, have certainly not ignored the African-American market -- but the two major firms have never held dedicated auctions. But they can boast top prices, ranging from Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) at Christie’s ($541,000, for the 1924-27 religious painting, Nicodemus Coming to Christ) to Romare Bearden (1911-88) at Sotheby’s ($240,000 for a 1975 collage, Manhattan Suite). Prices in the African-American market can still lag behind comparable artists in the white mainstream.

But Hindman observed that that the big two auction houses have all but ignored the bulk of African-American art, whose prices generally are low. “It’s not worth it for them,” she explained.

Neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s responded to questions about why they don’t hold sales devoted to African-American artists. But Peter Rathbone, formerly co-director of Sotheby’s American paintings department and now a consultant there, corroborated Hindman’s supposition, and acknowledged that the estimates for the majority of lots in Leslie Hindman’s African-American sale are below the $5,000 threshold that Sotheby’s requires for its lower-priced arcade sales.

“I think it’s a question of economics,” he said. “When you consider Sotheby’s costs in publishing a catalogue and promoting a sale, items that are estimated $400-$600, $800-$1,200 or even $1,000-$2,000, wouldn’t recover nearly enough to make a profit on the sale.”

He added that the “secondary market for African-American art hasn’t really developed yet. It needs more breadth and commensurate prices.”

Breadth appears to be on the way, and higher prices may follow close behind. Freeman noted that at many of Swann’s early sales of African-American art, the vast majority of bidders and buyers were themselves African-American, “but the most striking fact that we’ve seen is how more diverse the buyers are. Not just African-Americans, not just museums, but a broad range of collectors of 20th-century and contemporary art.”

Swann's twice-yearly sales have had a major effect on the markets for certain below-the-radar African-American artists, Freeman claimed, pushing their prices to new heights. Barkley Hendricks' (b. 1945) top auction sales -- $144,000 (est. $60,000-$90,000) for the 1973 oil Bid Em In/Slave-Angie, and $108,000 (est. $100,000-$150,000) for the 1977 diptych Twins -- both occurred at Swann's (in 2009 and 2011, respectively).

The same may be said for Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1915), whose 1968 painted carved wood Homage to My Young Black Sisters earned $288,000 (est, $175,000-$200,000) in 2009, and for Charles White (1918-79), whose 1948 charcoal drawing Move On Up a Little Higher brought $228,000 (est. $200,000-$250,000) in 2009.

An untitled oil by Norman Lewis (1909-79) brought $312,000 (est. $150,000-$200,000) in 2008, an Robert Colescott's 1975-86 acrylic A Legend Dimly Told fetched $132,000 -- double its high estimate -- in 2010. Meanwhile, a 1987 painting by John Biggers (1924-2001) titled Shotguns earned $216,000 (est. $200,000-$250,000) in 2009 and Faith Ringgold's 1966 oil Hide Little Children earned $10,000, well over its estimate, in 2008.

The credit doesnt’t belong to the auction houses alone, of course. Michael Rosenfeld, a Manhattan gallery owner who began a series of African-American art exhibitions back in 1993, claimed that he has done even better in private sales of the work of Catlett, White and Biggers, and he defines the auction houses’ venture into this part of the art market as “opportunistic.” Auction houses do tend to confirm rather than pioneer markets.

Rosenfeld’s space is among a small group of commercial art galleries that have made African-American art a special, although not necessarily an exclusive, focus. The gallery’s current exhibition (through Apr. 7, 2012) presents figurative work by the painters Benny Andrews, Alice Neel and Bob Thompson, and the focus of the show is the “interest in figurative imagery that all three share. We didn’t call it ‘Two African-American Artists and One White Lady’.”

Rosenfeld also noted that the most sought-after African-American art is abstraction from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, citing paintings by Charles Alston, Beauford Delaney, Alma Thomas and Hale Woodruff, because “this work has folded into the fabric of American abstract painting, and there is a broader audience of abstraction.”

The audience for more “narrative” late-19th- or early 20th-century paintings, which depict the African-American experience, on the other hand, is “very enthusiastic bur narrower.” Museums, which Rosenfeld said were among the most aggressive buyers of African-American art and often pay the highest prices, “are trying to stay relevant and serve their communities. No one can pretend any longer that we live in an all-white world.”

Among the museums that have purchased African-American artists’ work from his gallery are the Art Institute of Chicago, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Brooklyn Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art and the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum -- the last two of which he described as “good customers.”

According to Rosenfeld, museums had historically purchased a more narrative strain of art, because they wanted “work that looks like it’s by an African-American artist,” but he describes what he’s observed as a mounting interest in African-American abstraction. That shift reflects a post-racial approach to collecting, or, in his words, “a very positive sign.”

Editor's note: For an auction of African-American art a little closer to home, see Artnet Auctions own African-American sale.  The 21 lots in the auction, organized by Artnet specialist Eric Winkler, range from an untitled Purvis Young painting of a pair of musicians, with bidding starting at $2,000, to Willie Cole's 1992 sculpture Gas Snakes, which is estimated at $15,000-$18,000.

DANIEL GRANT is a contributing editor of American Artist magazine and the author of The Business of Being an Artist and several other books.

Artnet Analytics

1. Global sales volume of African-American artists, 1985-2011 (n.b. artists aggregated for this report are considered as being both of African descent and citizens of, or primarily residing in, the United States)

2. Global sales volume of African-American artists, 1985-2011 -- auction house breakdown (n.b. artists aggregated for this report are considered as being both of African descent and citizens of, or primarily residing in, the United States)

3. Performance of Swann’s “African-American Fine Art” sales, 2007-2011 (several artists included in Swann’s sales are of other nationalities, i.e. Chris Ofili, and are therefore not represented in parts 1 and 2 of this report)

4. Romare Bearden Index vs. S&P 500 -- all year view

5. Romare Bearden Index vs S&R 500 -- 10 year view