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Are Sales of African American Art Picking Up or in Decline?

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"This is still a very young market, and we're adding new artists all the time," said Swann Galleries' Nigel Freeman. "This" refers to African American art, an area of dedicated sales that Swann pioneered back in 2007, holding twice-yearly auctions since then. Something else being added to this market is another auction house -- Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago -- which is holding its first ever African American sale on March 1st and similarly plans to hold two a year.

The idea for this inaugural sale developed last summer, after Leslie Hindman held a special sale in August of couture items from the collection of the Ebony Fashion Fair show, collected by the late Eunice W. Johnson and consigned to Leslie Hindman by her daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC, which is the publisher of EBONY and JET magazines. Linda Rice herself is African American, as were many of the bidders at the sale. "We made a lot of friends who collect African American art, and many of them asked us about African American art," Hindman said. "I thought, 'Hm, that's interesting.'"

The first sale is small, consisting of only 39 lots. While there only is a handful of higher estimated pieces -- an 1867 painting titled "The Apennines, Italy" by Robert Duncanson is estimated $30,000-$50,000, while two paintings by Hughie Lee-Smith (an undated "The Veil" and the 1984 "Acropolis II") are each estimated $20,000-$30,000) -- Hindman claimed that she "wanted to get the ball rolling" and that more and higher-value lots will come the auction house's way after word of this sale gets out.

If the auction world is discovering the appeal of African-American art, a number of art galleries already had the news. "We've seen a consistent rise in prices and growing interest," said Michael Rosenfeld, a Manhattan gallery owner who began a series of African American art exhibits back in 1993, although he is more apt to mix the work of white and African American artists, based on thematic interests, in his more recent exhibits.

The gallery is currently (through April 7) exhibiting figurative paintings by three artists, Benny Andrews and Bob Thompson (who are African American) and Alice Neel.

He noted that there is "a finite number of great works" in the African American field, but for these pieces there has been a "consistent rise in prices." He claimed that the gallery has sold sculptural work by Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1915) for more than $300,000, and for sales of paintings by Charles White (1918-79) "$200,000-300,000 is commonplace." Last year, the gallery sold a tempera on wood design, part of a 26-foot mural titled "Web of Life" by John Biggers (1924-2001), to the Brooklyn Museum for over $200,000. Many of the highest prices for works in this category are from museums, which are "playing catch-up."

The largest auction houses have not wholly ignored the field of African American art ("We present African American artists across our various sales categories, including Post-War, Contemporary, Photography, Decorative Arts, etc.," a spokesman for Christie's stated), but Peter Rathbone, former co-director and now a consultant of American Paintings at Sotheby's, claimed that most of the lots in the Leslie Hindman auction are too inexpensive even for Sotheby's arcade sale, where the minimum estimate is no less than $5,000: "It's a question of economics. We wouldn't recover enough to make a profit on the sale."

At the higher end, however, Christie's and Sotheby's have included and sold works by significant African American artists in their American paintings auctions, including: Jacob Lawrence's 1947 tempera on board "The Builders" ($2,504,000, estimate $400,000-$600,000) at Christie's in 2007, Romare Bearden's 1975 collage and mixed media on board "Manhattan Suite" ($240,000, estimate $30,000-$40,000) at Sotheby's in 2007, Robert Scott Duncanson's 1852 oil "The Garden of Eden" ($343,500, estimate $300,000-500,000) at Christie's in 2003, and Henry Ossawa Tanner's 1924-7 painting "Nicodemus Coming to Christ" ($541,000, estimate $500,000-$700,000) at Christie's in 2008.

The fate of sales devoted to African American artists, such as those at Swann and Leslie Hindman, may become unnecessary as more auction houses include these artists in their American art sales. "It is good that this interest is expanding beyond New York, because it gives the public at large an opportunity to see the breadth and quality of the work that African Americans have contributed to American culture," said June Kelly, a Manhattan gallery owner who has featured the work of African Americans and other artists for decades. However, "I don't expect to see these dedicated sales in 10 years."