Major Robert Colescott painting coming to auction during Armory Week in New York

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A painting by Robert Colescott (1925-2009) that served as the focal point in the artist’s recent touring retrospective will be offered in a special single-lot sale at Bonhams New York this September straight from the Colescott family’s collection.

Colescott painted 1919 (1980) at the height of his practice, according to Bonhams, and it is one of his most important works. The sale will be the first time the painting has ever been on the market, and Bonhams expects it to fetch between $3m and $5m, which would make it among the most valuable of Colescott’s work at auction. The sale will be held 8 September in New York, coinciding with The Armory Show and its many satellite fairs.

Colescott, a light-skinned Black American man who could pass as white, used the painting to weave together the history of race in the US and his own personal experiences, according to Bonhams. Colescott painted his parents standing on either side of a map of the US, reflecting his family’s move from New Orleans, Louisiana, which was racially segregated at the time, to Oakland, California. The skin tones he used to depict his parents also shed light on their attitudes toward race: Colescott’s mother is shown with a lighter skin tone, while Colsecott painted his father’s skin using darker colours. The contrasting tones Colescott used reflect how his parents identified themselves, according to Bonhams. Colescott’s mother resisted being identified as Black, despite disagreement from Colescott’s father. Colescott continued to identify as white until the mid-1960s, when a trip to Egypt caused him to rethink his identity, which he explored through his painting.

The canvas was featured in Colescott’s 2019 retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, which subsequently travelled to Portland, Sarasota, Chicago and finally the New Museum in New York in 2022.

In February during Frieze Los Angeles, Bonhams sold Coelscott’s painting Miss Liberty (1980) for $4.5m (including fees) to the Art Bridges Foundation, a non-profit established by billionaire Walmart heiress Alice Walton, who in 2011 founded the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Walton has used her wealth to snap up rare works of art at auction for the museum’s collection. Colescott’s auction record was set in 2021 when George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware (1975) sold for a record-breaking $15.3m (including fees) at Sotheby’s. It was purchased by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, scheduled to open in Los Angeles in 2025.

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