NEW YORK – Swann Galleries’ sale of African American Fine Art on June 4 was met with much fanfare, despite an online-only format due to social distancing guidelines in New York City. The sale was led with an artist record for Richmond Barthé, whose cast bronze sculpture Feral Benga sold to a collector for $629,000. Absentee and Internet live bidding was available through LiveAuctioneers.
The sale bested its high estimate and totaled $3.5 million. The auction resulted in numerous auction records and had an 88% sell-through rate by lot.
The Barthé sculpture titled Feral Benga (above), which was modeled in 1935 and cast in 1986, represents the culmination of Barthé’s study of the figure in sculpture, anatomy and dance in the 1930s, and his pioneering realization of an ideal male nude.
“We had a number of interested parties who together swiftly bid the lot up to around $100,000, but the bidding quickly became a battle between two determined collectors. Feral Benga is the sculptor’s best-known work and a notable artwork from the Harlem Renaissance making it a desirable work for collectors,” noted Nigel Freeman, the Swann Galleries’ director of African American fine art, of the record-setting price.
Additional works in sculpture included Elizabeth Catlett’s 1975 carved mahogany form of a standing woman, which brought $125,00; Simone Leigh’s 2001 salt-fired stoneware vessel, which earned $75,000; and James W. Washington Jr.’s 1971 carved stone sculpture Life, which brought a record for the artist at $18,750.
David Hammons’s 1965 paper collage of two raised fists was the earliest of the artist’s works to be seen at auction. The work came across the block at $137,000. Further works from the postwar period featured Romare Bearden’s Aphrodite, a 1973 collage and acrylic work from his The Prevalence of Ritual series, which saw $106,250.
Photography featured a portfolio of 18 mounted silver and sepia-toned prints of various families from the Harlem Renaissance, 1905-38, by James VanDerZee, which saw $35,000. LaToya Ruby Frazier made her market debut with two works in the sale: Gramps on His Bed (below) silver print, 2002, at $10,625, and Grandma Ruby’s Porcelain Dolls, silver print, 2004, at $9,375.
Highlights in abstraction included Betty Blayton’s 1971 oil and collage tondo Together, which earned a record for the artist at $35,000, and Sam Gilliam’s Horses Upside Down, acrylic on polypropylene on canvas, 1998, at $125,000.
A run of paintings by artist and athlete Ernie Barnes proved to be successful with all five of the works on offer finding buyers. Highlights included New Shoes, circa 1970, which set a record for the artist at $68,750, as well as In the Beginning, circa 1970, and Pool Hustlers, circa 1969, both offered in artist-built frames, sold for $57,500 and $55,000, respectively.
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