In 2006, Nicholas Lowry, president of the small, family-owned auction house Swann Auction Galleries, was approached by Nigel Freeman, then the auction house’s associate director of prints and drawings, with a proposal. Swann’s works on paper department, the longtime bread and butter of an auction house founded in 1941 with a specialty in rarde and antiquarian books, had just sold several collages by Romare Bearden, the artist, writer, and activist who co-founded the historic African American artists’ collective Spiral in 1963. Freeman was excited to see the works sell for over triple — in one case, nearly quadruple — their low estimates, hitting record price points of up to $95,000. The market was beginning to wake up to the fact that works by Bearden and other Black makers were historically undervalued in a market that had long elevated white male artists. At around the same time, Freeman was presented with an opportunity to work with a significant collection of modern African American fine art, an area in which he was passionate and knowledgeable. What if Swann formed a department dedicated to fine art by Black Americans, the first of its kind in any major auction house?
Lowry was excited by Freeman’s idea and, enabled by the flexibility of a small auction house, quickly promised him three sales as proof of concept. The new department wouldn’t be Swann’s first to focus on Black cultural production. Ten years prior, in 1996, the auction house established a division dedicated to printed and manuscript African Americana. The department’s longstanding sales of books, posters, photographs, ephemera, and historic documents including those written by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., document a robust history of African American life. The printed and manuscript African Americana department too, was and remains the only one of its kind, mapping market values — albeit more modest ones — onto an untried genre.
The first African American fine art sale, held in February 2007, was so well-attended that, for the first time in the company’s history, Swann had to add an additional floor of overflow seating. The second auction, a sale of the Golden State Mutual Life African American Art Collection, was also a success. Outside of a few household names such as Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, the public market for Black art had largely gone untested, untapped.
“When we started, there were very few auction records for the diverse group of African American artists that we see on the market today,” Freeman told Hyperallergic in an interview. “We stepped into creating a new market for the first generation of modern African American artists and the second generation of post-war artists. With access to some truly fantastic material, we quickly set new auction records for hundreds of artists and introduced hundreds of artists to the market.”
The record-setting at Swann, of course, is only one small piece of the puzzle in the fight for a more equitable art world that recognizes the contributions of Black artists, a charge led by Black gallerists, curators, scholars, arts administrators, and, perhaps most of all, artists.
At the first African American art sale alone, record prices were set for 20 artists, including such notables as color field painter Sam Gilliam, abstract expressionist Norman Lewis, and the American and Mexican artist Elizabeth Catlett, who had a sculpture come to auction for the first time ever.
For the past 13 years, Swann has been the only major auction house with a department dedicated to African American art. The house holds two to three African American art sales annually, setting auction records for artists such as John Biggers, Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Gilliam, Barkley Hendricks, Hughie Lee-Smith, Lewis, Faith Ringgold, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff. Swann has also continued to introduce new names to the market, spotlighting more than a sliver of its breadth.
“It’s not about the bottom line,” explained Swann auctioneer and chief marketing officer Alexandra Mann-Nelson. “It’s about putting together interesting sales of works that are art historically important.” Freeman, now director of the African American Art department at Swann Auction Galleries, shared the sentiment, telling Hyperallergic: “It’s about how their work fits into the changing history of what is great American art.”
Corey Serrant joined the two-person African American art department as an administrator earlier this year. He recalled that even just a few years ago, when he was a university student, he didn’t see Black artists “in my text books, in my classes, or represented anywhere.”
“At Swann, I’m really immersing myself in a quote-unquote Black art history, doing primary research and producing scholarship on these artists while helping to bring them into the fold of the secondary market,” Serrant said.
Demand for work by marginalized artists who — even if they had been included in major collections or been the subject of scholarly research — had yet to have their value confirmed by the market, has grown. So have sales totals at Swann’s African American art department. For a few years, that growth was gradual. Sales volume and sales averages were increasing more or less in tandem, the picture of a healthy market. The department’s annual sales totals for 2009 to 2014 ranged from about $2 million to $3.5 million. In 2015, annual totals jumped to over $5.25 million, a number bolstered by the record-breaking sale of a Norman Lewis painting that December for $965,000, more than quadruple its low estimate.
That year, Swann was also entrusted with a historic consignment: the late author and activist Maya Angelou’s private art collection, which included, among other treasures, a vibrantly colored story quilt by Faith Ringgold — the first of its kind to come to auction — commissioned by Oprah Winfrey in 1989 for Angelou’s 61st birthday. “Maya’s Quilt of Life,” which depicts Angelou walking along a wooded path framed by quotations drawn from her work, sold for $461,000, over triple its low estimate. The buyer was the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas.
“Institutions are increasingly coming to Swann to buy this material as they try to build more inclusive libraries and collections, which is great,” said Lowry. “That’s a real sign that we’ve hit a cultural nerve.” Lowry was speaking not only of Swann’s African American art department but also of its popular yearly sale of LGBTQ+ art and material culture, an initiative begun in June 2019 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. (The LGBTQ+ art auctions are also sites of record-breaking; a highlight of this year’s sale, Tom of Finland’s “Fucker” (1965), sold for $55,000, over nine times its low estimate and a major record for the artist.)
In 2018, the annual total for Swann’s African American art department saw an even more dramatic increase, to about $8.25 million compared to around $5.25 million from 2017. By this point, the major auction houses had caught on to what Freeman picked up on over a decade prior: there was significant market demand for work by Black artists, both modern artists who had been historically undervalued or underrecognized due to factors of race and class — many examples of which were featured in Swann’s African American auctions — as well as contemporary and emerging artists.
2018 was a watershed year in the market for work by Black artists across the auction market. Per a report released by Artnet, a whopping 25% of the total spend on work by Black artists at auction from 2008 to 2018 was spent in the first six months of 2018, perhaps most notably by rapper and music producer Sean Combs, who paid $21.1 million for Kerry James Marshall’s painting “Past Times” (1997), quadrupling the artist’s record and setting the auction record for a work by a living Black artist. The market was top-heavy, centered around Jean-Michel Basquiat — who accounted for a mind-boggling 77% of the sales of work by African American artists over the decade — and a handful of contemporary giants: Mark Bradford, David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, and Julie Mehretu.
The market for work by modern and contemporary Black artists has continued to grow, both in the prices reached and in the number of artists included. The modern and contemporary markets function differently, with the highest prices — and the most predatory speculation — concentrated in the latter. Swann has built its African American art department on modern art but is increasingly adding more contemporary pieces to its offerings.
The boom of interest in African American art has been buoyed by a number of factors, including but certainly not limited to: the work of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit founded in 2010 to promote work by Black artists from the American South, and the success of an internationally acclaimed survey show, The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983, which debuted at Tate in 2017 and went on display on five museums across the United States. Also significant for spreading cultural awareness about the African American art market was the platform that the Obamas gave to Black artists both in their collecting practices and in commissioning Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley for their official portraits. Most importantly, perhaps, is the long-overdue reckoning brought upon by Black Lives Matter, which, since its inception in 2013, has become the most popular movement in US history and currently ranks #1 on the ArtReview’s Power 100 List, published earlier this month.
So far in 2020, the sales totals for Swann’s African American art department are $6.5 million. In January, the department handled the sale of the art collection of the Johnson Publishing Company, the company responsible for the magazines Ebony and Jet which were pivotal to Black American life for seven decades. The historic company had recently declared bankruptcy and was liquidating its assets. All of the lots in the auction sold, garnering twice the auction’s high estimate and setting records for 29 artists including Carrie Mae Weems and Richard Mayhew. At its June auction, which had an 88% sell-through rate, the department sold its top lot of the year: Richmond Barthé’s cast bronze statue “Feral Benga” (1936), a Harlem Renaissance masterpiece that sold for $629,000, a record for the artist. Both sales brought new artists to the secondary market.
2020 isn’t yet over, and today, December 10, Swann will hold its last sale of African American art this year. Tapping into several market segments, the auction predominantly features modern and post-war art but also contains contemporary work made as recently as 2015, as Swann dips additional toes into the hot market. Among the auction’s highlights are a 1929 bust by Augusta Savage, which has been in the same family since it was purchased from the artist in 1939 (estimated at $20,000–$30,000); a 1976 abstract poured painting by Frank Bowling, an artist whose market is very much on the rise (estimated at $75,000–$100,000); and a pair of fabulous 1979 “disco dolls” by Faith Ringgold, the first of the artist’s soft sculptures to come to auction (estimated at $80,000–$120,000). The market will be paying close attention to the results of today’s sales.
“These are wonderful artists who have established themselves over the course of long careers,” Freeman said. “The market is just catching up.”