Auction Records Set for Hendricks, Gilliam, Jones and Driskell

Nigel Freeman Discusses the Recent Auction, Swann History & the Market

in an interview with Eric Hanks

The first auction house to devote an entire department to African American art, Swann Galleries established the first significant auction records for Romare Bearden and for artists such as Charles White ($300,000) who had underperformed in the seondary market. In researching the provenance of the works that it offers, Swann also is making Henry Ossawa Tanner, Boy and Sheep Under a Tree, oil on canvas, 1881. Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.important contributions to the history of the art, in general.

On April 2, 2015 at Swann Galleries' Ascension: A Century of African American Art auction, 178 lots were offered for sale, of which 130 (73%) sold for a total of $2.34 million.  

Norman Lewis, Cathedral, oil on canvas, 1950. Courtesy of Swann Auction GalleriesFour lots fetched six figures: Boy and Sheep Under Tree, 1881 by Henry Tanner, $245,000 (est. $200,000 to $300,000); Cathedral, 1950, by Norman Lewis, $317,000 (est. $120,000 to $180,000); Untitled, 1969, by Sam Gilliam, $197,000 (est. $40,000 to $60,000); and, and Steve, 1976, by Barkley L. Hendricks, $365,000 (est. $120,00 to $180,000.  

Sam Gilliam, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 1969. Courtesy of Swann Auction GalleriesIn addition, auction records were set for four artists: Barkley L. Hendricks at $365,000 for the lot named above; Sam Gilliam at $197,000 also for the lot named above; Lois M. Jones at $62,500 (est. $30,000 to $40,000) for Lobsterville Beach, 1945; and  David C. Driskell at $47,500 (est. $35,000 to $50,000) for Two Pines (Two Trees), 1961.

Nigel Freeman founded the African American Fine Art department at Swann in 2006 and organized its first auction in 2007.  I asked him to put this latest auction into perspective.

Eric Hanks: When was the first African American art auction at Swann Galleries and how would you evaluate the results of that auction?

Barkley L. Hendricks, Steve, oil, acrylic and Magna on canvas, 1976. Nigel Freeman:  Swann’s first African American art sale was on Feb. 6, 2007. It was a challenge to do the first sale, when there were few auction records for these artists. It was uncharted territory, but the first auction was terrific. It was our most heavily attended exhibition and auctionat Swann Galleries. We sold out of the catalog. The auction room was bursting at the seams — we had to have two floors of seating as the main auction room was full.

EH: Have you always been in charge of the African American art auction? If not, who else was in charge and what are the dates of leadership for that person or those persons, including you?

NF:  Yes, I am the founder and the director of the African American fine art department at Swann Auction Galleries  I proposed the creation department, and I opened the new African American Fine Art department in the fall of 2006. We are now in our eigth year of auctions.

David C. Driskell, Two Pines (Two Trees), oil on canvas, 1961. Courtesy of Swann Auction GalleriesEH: What motivated you to establish an African American art auction? 

NF: I was motivated to create the new department as I had seen the very narrow representation of African American artists in the auction market. Many African American artists were not just undervalued — they were ignored. The market seemed only interested in dealing with three major artists — Henry Ossawa Tanner, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. While important figures, the market overlooked a great segment of modern and contemporary artists. So by offering choice works, we soon established numerous auction records for many important African American artists.

EH: What do you say to those who feel that separating African American art into it own category is ultimately a bad thing for the artists and that it perpetuates racial segregation?

Lois Mailou Jones, Lobsterville Beach, oil on canvas, 1945. Courtesy of Swann Auction GalleriesNF: The results of our sales showed the need to focus on promoting African American artists. Collectors responded enthusiastically as both consignors and buyers when the contributions of African American artists were highlighted. At Swann we created a secondary market at auction for many major figures, including John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Sam Gilliam, Barkley Hendricks, Hughie Lee-Smith, Norman Lewis, Al Loving, Charles White and Hale Woodruff. Many of these were the result of significant institutional purchases. There is nothing more validating than seeing works by these artists now being included in museum permanent collections.

EH:  The latest auction produced some spectacular results.  What do you think accounts for those results?

Marion Sampler, Untitled, oil on canvas, 1965.  Sold 4/2/15 for $20,000, an auction record for the artist. Courtesy Swann Galleries NF:  We have really benefited from the changing view of American art. American art collecting has gotten a lot broader. Museums have been much more active in acquiring works by African American artists as collections of American art become more inclusive. Collecting is also much broader too. Now collectors across many areas of American Art are seeking many of these artists. If you collect New York School painting, you now really need a 1950s Norman Lewis oil painting in your collection. If you collect color field abstraction, you likely are on the look out for a late 1960s Sam Gilliam stained canvas. You might not be a collector of African American art, but there are many certainly interested in contemporary artists like Sam Gilliam or Barkley Hendricks.

James C. Mcmillan, Dark Corner, oil on canvas, 1960. Sold 4/2 2015 for $35,000, an auction record for the artist. Courtesy of Swann Auction GalleriesEH:  Was the latest auction the best of all previous auctions in terms of dollars or any other way, such as quality of artwork being offered?  If so, what do you think is the reason for that?

NF:  Thank you — the spectacular results of the April 2nd auction really demonstrated this trend. We offered museum quality works by several artists - including 19th Century, modern and contemporary. The auction records set by the paintings by Barkley Hendricks and Sam Gilliam, two important contemporary artists who are now enjoying a late resurgence, more than doubled our previous records. We also achieved the second highest price for a Norman Lewis artwork with his 1950 oil "Cathedral" that had been exhibited in the 1956 Venice Biennale. The interest in Norman Lewis keeps rising in the market with the highly anticipated retrospective opening this November at PAFA.  These three paintings attracted tremendous interest from significant private and public collections. Our first and third auctions were a little larger dollar wise — but they were also bigger. I do feel this sale was our best due to the quality of the work and the way the market responded — smashing previous records.

EH:  Do any other African American art auctions stand out?  If so, in what way?

Have you noticed any trends in the market for African American art?  If so, how would you describe it or them?

Nigel FreemanNF:  Our auctions now are part of a much more competitive art auction market, for African American art, and especially for contemporary art. There are plenty of works by African American artists now rightfully included in the art sales of many auction houses. It's a very different landscape than it was eight years — so it's great to finally see artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Hughie Lee-Smith or Norman Lewis regularly offered in sales of modern or American art.  We no longer enjoy the novelty of being the new department, and we have adapted. 

EH:  What do you see as the future for African American art auctions at Swann Galleries?

NF:  We continue to build on our earlier successes, but seek out artists that are new or undervalued in the market. We continually seek out outstanding works by important artists who are in demand.  Finding such high quality works that coincide with trends of collecting is an exciting challenge.

Thomas Watson Hunster

Thomas Watson Hunster, View of a Valley, oil on linen canvas, circa 1900-10. 31 x 21½”. Sold on April 2, 2015 for $6,500. Courtesy of Swann Auction GalleriesPursuing the catalog for the Swann Ascension auction, George-McKinley Martin, an art blogger who was head art librarian at the main Washington DC Public Library, was particularly interested in Thomas Watson Hunster because of the artist’s DC connection, and because he'd never seen any of his art. “Very little archival information regarding Hunster or his art is available in print,” Martin wrote in his online Black Art Project.  “My exploration led me to the artist files at the Smithsonian American Art/Portrait Gallery Library.”  Martin shares his research on Hunster in his Project in the section after “Artist Talks.”  

Eric Hanks is director of M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA, and a certified appraiser specializing in African American art.

Compete Auction Details


Sale total: $2,382,468 with Buyer’s Premium

Hammer total: $1,925,350

Estimates for sale as a whole: $1,653,500 – $2,471,000

We offered 178 lots; 130 sold (73% sell-through rate by lot)

Top lots          Prices with buyer’s premium

KEY for listing below: *=Auction Record for a Work by the Artist; C=Collector; D=Dealer; I=Institution

125* Barkley L. Hendricks, Steve, oil, acrylic and Magna on canvas, 1976.      $365,000 I

47 Norman Lewis, Cathedral, oil on canvas, 1950.       $317,000 I

1 Henry Ossawa Tanner, Boy and Sheep Under a Tree, oil on canvas, 1881.     $245,000 C

94* Sam Gilliam, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 1969.       $197,000 C

39*  Loïs Mailou Jones, Lobsterville Beach, oil on canvas, 1945.      $62,500 C

54 Lewis, Sunset #2, oil on canvas, 1960.        $57,500 C

146 Elizabeth Catlett, Glory, cast bronze, 1981.        $57,500 C

63* David C. Driskell, Two Pines (Two Trees), oil on canvas, 1961.      $47,500 C

60 Hughie Lee-Smith, Figure by the Seashore II, oil on masonite board, 1957.     $45,000 C

50 Lewis, Untitled (Processional Composition), oil and ink, 1952.      $37,500 C

66 Beauford Delaney, Untitled (Abstraction in Green), oil on canvas, 1961.     $35,000 C

128 Alvin D. Loving Jr., Untitled, mixed media on collage of cardboard, paper and wood on board, circa 1976-79. $35,000 D

69* James C. McMillan, Dark Corner, oil on canvas, 1960.       $35,000 C

Palmer Hayden, Brooklyn Bridge and Dockworkers, oil on canvas, circa 1940-50. Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries142 Romare Bearden, Brazil, collage mounted on masonite board, circa 1978.     $32,500 C

111 Ernie Barnes, Untitled (The Hook Shot), acrylic on canvas, circa 1971.     $30,000 I

42 Palmer Hayden, Brooklyn Bridge and Dockworkers, oil on canvas, circa 1940-50.    $30,000 C

51 Lewis, I’m Beginning to See the Light, oil and ink, 1959.       $27,500 C

167 Carrie Mae Weems, You Became the Playmate to the Patriarch and Their Daughter, diptych of chromogenic $23,750 D

prints with etched text on glass, 1995.

169 Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation (Scene 18), color screenprint, 1999-2000.   $23,750 C

5 Tanner, Venice, oil on canvas, 1897.         $22,500 C