For the past 13 years, Swann Auction Galleries have been the only major auction house with a department dedicated to African American art, setting auction records for artists such as Sam Gilliam, Faith Ringgold, and Charles White.
In 2006, Nigel Freeman, then deputy director of prints and drawings at the auction house, approached Nicholas Lowry, president of the small family-run Swann Auction Galleries.
Swann’s work on the paper department, a longtime bread and butter auction house founded in 1941 and specializing in rare and antique books, has just sold several collages of Romar Bearden, artist, writer, and activist, co-founder of the historic African Collective of American Artists Spiral in 1963.
Freeman was thrilled to see the artwork sold more than threefold – almost fourfold in one case – of their low valuations, reaching a record price of $ 95,000. The market was waking up to the fact that the work of Bearden and other black artists had historically been undervalued in a market that had long attracted white male artists.
Around the same time, Freeman had the opportunity to work with a significant collection of contemporary African American fine art – an area in which he was passionate and knowledgeable. Swann Auction Galleries create a department dedicated to the fine arts of black Americans. It is the first of its kind in any major auction house.
Lowry was delighted with Freeman’s idea and, thanks to the flexibility of a small auction house, quickly promised him three sales as a proof of concept. Swann’s new division won’t be the first to focus on cultural products for blacks.
Ten years earlier, in 1996, the auction house had established a division dedicated to print and handwritten African Americans. The division’s decades of sales of books, posters, photographs, ephemera, and historical documents, including those written by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., document the robust life story of African Americans.
The African American print and ink division has also been and remains one of a kind, reflecting market values. The first African American Fine Art Sale in February 2007 was well attended. For the first time in the company’s history, Swann Auction Galleries had to add an extra floor with seating.
The second auction, the Golden State Mutual Life collection of African American art, was also successful. With the exception of a few names like Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, the public market for black art has largely remained untested and untapped.
Freeman said in an interview that when they started, there were very few auction records for the diverse group of African American artists we see on the market today. They have made a step towards creating a new market for the first generation of contemporary African American artists. According to Freeman, with access to truly fantastic content, they quickly set new auction records for hundreds of artists and brought hundreds of artists to the market.
Breaking records at Swann Auction is, of course, just a small piece of the puzzle in the struggle for a fairer art world that recognizes the contributions of black artists – an indictment led by black gallery owners, curators, scholars, art administrators, and perhaps most of all artists.
The first African American art sale alone set record prices for 20 artists, including famous people such as color field artist Sam Gilliam, abstract expressionist Norman Lewis and American and Mexican artist Elizabeth Catlett, whose sculpture was auctioned for the very first time.
For the past 13 years, Swann Auction has been the only major auction house with a department dedicated to African American art.
The Swann Auction Galleries hold two to three African American art sales annually, setting auction records for artists such as John Biggers, Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Gilliam, Barkley Hendrix, Hughie Lee-Smith, Lewis, Faith Ringgold, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff. Swann also continues to bring new names to market, highlighting more than a fraction of its breadth.
Swann auctioneer and CMO Alexandra Mann-Nelson explained that it wasn’t about the bottom line. It’s about collecting interesting sales of works that are of historical importance to art. Freeman, now director of African American art at Swann Auction Galleries told that it was about how their work fitted into the changing history of what was great American art.
Corey Serrant joined the two-person African American Art department as an administrator earlier this year. He recalled that just a few years ago when he was a university student, he saw black artists neither in his textbooks, nor in his classes, nor anywhere else.
Serrant said that at Swann Auction Galleries, he really immerses himself in the history of black art without quotations, does primary research, and provides scholarships to these artists to help them enter the secondary market.
The demand for the work of marginalized artists has grown. The same is true for the sales of Swann’s African American Art Department. This growth has been gradual for several years. Sales volume and average sales grew more or less simultaneously, which is a picture of a healthy market.
The department’s annual sales from 2009 to 2014 ranged from $ 2 million to $ 3.5 million. In 2015, annual amounts jumped to more than $ 5.25 million, boosted by a record sale of a painting by Norman Lewis in December of that year for $ 965,000, more than four times its low estimate.
That same year, Swann Auction Galleries were entrusted with a historic party: the private art collection of the late author and activist Maya Angela, which, among other things, included the colorful Faith Ringgold patchwork quilt – the first of its kind to be auctioned. Maya’s Quilt of Life depicts Angela walking down a forest path, framed by quotes from her work, which sold for $ 461,000, three times her low rating. The buyer was the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. It was bought by the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas.
Lowry said institutions are increasingly coming to Swann Auction Galleries to buy this material as they try to create more inclusive libraries and collections, which is great. This is a real sign that they have touched the cultural nerve.
Lowry spoke not only about Suanne’s African American Art Department but also about his popular annual LGBTQ + Art and Material Culture Sale, an initiative launched in June 2019 to mark Stonewall’s 50th anniversary. LGBTQ + art auctions are also record-breaking venues; the highlight of this year’s sale, Tom’s Fucker from Finland (1965), sold for $ 55,000, more than nine times the low estimate and a major record for an artist.
In 2018, Swann’s African American Art Department’s annual revenue increased even more dramatically, to about $ 8.25 million, up from about $ 5.25 million in 2017.
By this point, the mainstream auction houses had captured what Freeman had noticed over a decade ago: there was a significant market demand for the work of black artists, as contemporary artists, historically undervalued or undervalued due to factors of race and class. – many of which have been featured at Swann’s African American auctions, as well as contemporary and emerging artists.
2018 was a watershed year for the auction market for black artists. According to a report published by Artnet, a whopping 25% of the total cost of black artists’ work at auctions from 2008 to 2018 was spent in the first six months of 2018, possibly primarily by rapper and music producer Sean Combs, who paid $ 21.1 million for Kerry James Marshall’s painting Bygone Times (1997). It is four times the artist’s record and sets an auction record for a living black artist.
The market was high, centered around Jean-Michel Basquiat, who accounted for a staggering 77% of African American artists’ sales over the decade, and several contemporary giants: Mark Bradford, David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, and Julie Merete.
The market for contemporary and contemporary black artists continues to grow, both in terms of prices and the number of artists included. Markets today function in different ways, with the highest prices – and the most predatory speculation – focused on the latter. Swann Auction Galleries have built its African American Contemporary Art department but is adding more and more contemporary art to its offerings.
The boom in African American art has been fueled by a number of factors, including but not limited to: the work of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 2010 to promote the work of black artists from the American South, and the success of the internationally acclaimed research show Soul of a Nation: Art in the era of black power 1963-1983 ”, which debuted at the Tate Gallery in 2017 and was shown in five museums in the United States.
Also important in spreading cultural awareness about the African American art market was the platform that Obama provided black artists both in their collecting practices and in ordering Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley for their official portraits.
Most important, perhaps, is the long-overdue reckoning caused by Black Lives Matter, which has become the most popular movement in US history since its inception in 2013 and currently ranks # 1 on ArtReview’s Power 100 list released earlier this year.
Swann’s African American Art Department has a total sales of $ 6.5 million so far in 2020. In January, the department sold the art collection of the Johnson Publishing Company, the company responsible for Ebony and Jet magazines, which have played a critical role in the lives of black Americans for seven decades.
The historic company recently filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its assets. All of the auction lots were sold, double the auction’s estimate, and set records for 29 artists, including Carrie May Weems and Richard Mayhew.
In a June auction, which saw through sales of 88%, the department sold its best lot of the year: a cast bronze statue of Richmond Bart’s Savage Benga (1936), a Renaissance Harlem masterpiece that sold for $ 629,000, a record for an artist. Both sales brought new artists to the secondary market.
2020 is not over yet, and today, December 10, Swann will host the last African American art sale of the year.
The Swann Auction spans multiple market segments. It mainly features contemporary and post-war art. The Swann Auction also features contemporary works from as recently as 2015. Highlights from the Swann Auction include:
- a 1929 bust of Augusta Savage, owned by the same family since it was bought from the artist in 1939 (estimated at $ 20,000 to $ 30,000);
- a 1976 abstract painting by Frank Bowling, an artist whose market is growing rapidly (estimated at $ 75,000 to $ 100,000);
- and a pair of fabulous 1979 “disco dolls” by Faith Ringgold, the first of the artist’s soft sculptures up for auction (estimated at $ 80,000 to $ 120,000).