African American art goes through the roof at Case auction

African American art

Case’s July 11-12 auction featured two sculptures by important African American artist William Edmondson. ‘Lady with a Book’ (est. $40,000-$44,000) competed to $144,000, and a ‘Critter’ (est. $18,000-$22,000) hit $66,000. Case Antiques Auction image

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – African American works of art, including sculpture by William Edmondson and Augusta Savage and two important quilts, blazed past their estimates to become the major storyline of the day at the Summer Case Antiques Auction, held July 11-12. But it was a day of multiple subplots, with headline-worthy results across multiple categories; a limited and “sold-out,” reservation-only live audience, accompanied by over 7,000 people placing online, absentee and phone bids; and an auction sales total finishing 20% above the high estimate with 95% of the lots sold. Absentee and Internet live bidding was available through LiveAuctioneers.

“There’s no doubt, many individuals and institutions are racing to close gaps in their collections,” said company president John Case, referring to the success of works by black artists in this auction. “The good news is there’s an abundance of great African American art, especially here in the South. We’ve been offering it since this company started over 15 years ago, and it’s gratifying to see more collectors and institutions joining in our excitement about these works.”

He pointed to William Edmondson, the Tennessee sculptor who became the first African American artist to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Case has sold eight Edmondson sculptures in the past five years, including one now in MOMA’s permanent collection, and two which have topped $250,000 in the past year alone. Both of those had exhibition histories and were larger than this auction’s Lady with a Book (above), factors reflected in the limestone sculpture’s modest $40,000-$44,000 estimate. But the “Lady” raced to $144,000, hammering to an anonymous individual on the phone, while an Edmondson limestone “Critter” tripled its estimate to reach $66,000, despite some chips to the base (est. $18,000-$22,000). (All prices in this report include the buyer’s premium).

The masked and socially distanced audience broke out in applause when a Depression-era “TVA quilt” crushed its $2,000-3,000 estimate to hit $50,400. The textile (below) depicted a black man with a guitar, torn between the hands of a woman and Uncle Sam, in a silhouetted style reminiscent of murals of the period by Aaron Douglas. It was designed by African American educator and activist Ruth Clement Bond and made by the unknown wife of a worker at one of the Tennessee Valley Authority WPA dam sites at the juncture of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. Although there was significant staining and color loss to the border, the central panel remained intact except for some fading. The buyer was an institution, underbid by eight other bidders and several absentee bidders, including multiple museums.

African American art

Designed by African American educator and activist Ruth Clement Bond, this Southern Depression era quilt – reminiscent of murals by Aaron Douglas – soared to $50,400. Case Antiques Auction image

An institutional buyer also prevailed on a colorful early 20th century African American quilt, attributed to East Tennessee schoolteacher Margaret Carr and/or her mother, Lema Carr. The quilt ingeniously (and symbolically) combined a Schoolhouse pattern with a Tree of Life motif, and came with an exhibition history that included the recent “Century of African American Quilts” display at Colonial Williamsburg’s McCarl Gallery. It achieved twice its estimate, $5,280.

The breakout work for Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage (b. Florida, 1892-d. NY, 1962) was her bronzed plaster bust of a street urchin titled Gamin, created in 1929.  It was so popular that Savage created multiple versions, all of which are in high demand today. The Gamin figure offered by Case, measuring just 9 inches high with a few scattered chips, easily blew past its $7,000-8,000 estimate to earn $28,800.

African American art

Augusta Savage’s ‘Gamin’ sculptures represented children living on the streets of New York during the Great Depression. This 9in example in bronzed plaster hit $28,800 (est. $7,000-$8,000). Case Antiques Auction image

Another artist who rose to acclaim during the Harlem Renaissance is Tennessee-born Beauford Delaney. His small watercolor abstract expressionist work titled Composition soared to $15,600 (estimate $4,000-$4,400).

Other fine art highlights included a marine painting of the English yacht Cambria racing in the 1870 America’s Cup, by English artist Charles Gregory. It drew a slew of phone bidders and clipped past its $4,000-$4,500 estimate to finish at $16,800.

African American art

This painting by British marine artist Charles Gregory, which depicts the Cambria competing in the 1870 America’s Cup race, sold for $16,800. Case Antiques Auction image

A luminous realist winter landscape by John Wesley Chumley (1928-1984) set a new world auction record for the Virginia/Tennessee artist at $18,000, while Group of Myselves, a lithograph by Memphis artist Carroll Cloar, depicting his own likeness at various stages of life, shattered its $1,000-$1,200 estimate to finish at $6,000.

Estate jewelry sparkled throughout the auction. A 6-carat pear-shape diamond (Clarity I-1 enhanced by laser drill, color E) with six baguette diamonds in JB Star designed platinum ring setting doubled its estimate at $40,800, while a Piaget emerald and diamond necklace set in 18K gold hit $31,200 (est. $26,000-28,000) and a pair of matching Piaget earrings hammered for $3,000.

African American art

There was an expansive selection of jewelry fresh from Southern estates, including this authenticated Piaget ‘High Jewelry’ necklace set with a pear-shape natural emerald and 55 carats worth of diamonds. It sold for $31,200 (est. $26,000-28,000). Case Antiques Auction image

Buyers took a shine to English silver. A George III Neoclassical sterling epergne by Thomas Pitts of London, dating from 1774-1775, served up $14,080, while a pair of Neoclassical-style sterling candelabra by Joseph and Horace Savory of London, dated 1890, lit up at $5,280.

A scarce War of 1812-era Tennessee state militia jacket, belonging to Lt. William Graham of East Tennessee and accompanied by his powder horn and military commission signed by Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier, charged to $24,000.

African American art

A circa 1812 militia uniform belonging to Lt. William Graham of Tennessee marched to $24,000. The lot included Graham’s powder horn and military commission signed by Tennessee’s first governor. Case Antiques Auction image

A formal Southern walnut Chippendale press, circa 1810, with broken arch pediment having carved rosettes over glazed doors and a chest base, led the furniture category at $11,400.

A number of Asian lots in the sale were purchased by overseas bidders. A pair of 15-inch-tall Daoist bronze Immortal sculptures sold to a phone bidder for $12,000, while a palace sized cloisonné censer supported on figural cranes flew to $7,000 and a Chinese blue and white Gu vase, drilled and wired as a lamp, lit up at $6,400.

For more information or to consign, call the gallery in Knoxville at 865-558-3033 or the company’s Nashville office at 615-812-6096, or email

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