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Swann Galleries’ first WPA artists auction sets 4 records

John Vachon, a select group of 38 vintage photographs, silver prints, circa 1937-42. Sold for $37,500, a record for the grouping. Swann Galleries image

NEW YORK—The Artists of the WPA were on display in Swann Galleries’ auction on Feb. 4. The multi-departmental sale featured paintings, prints, photographs, posters and related ephemera by artists whose careers were sustained by the Works Progress Administration and other agencies of the Depression-era’s New Deal. Absentee and Internet live bidding was available through LiveAuctioneers.

The sale was led by a selection of 38 vintage silver prints spanning 1932 to ’42 by John Vachon (above), a record for the grouping, at $37,500. Vachon began his work for the Farm Security Administration as an assistant messenger. As his interest in photography grew, he began to make his own photographs and accompanied Arthur Rothstein on one of his assignments; in 1938 Vachon would have his first solo assignment for the FSA in Nebraska.

Additional photography highlights include Dorothea Lange, with Hoe Culture, Alabama Tenant Farmer near Anniston, silver print, 1936 ($8,125), and Migrant Mother, silver print, 1936, printed circa 1970 ($7,000); Berenice Abbott with Manhattan Bridge (Looking Up), silver contact print, 1936 ($7,000); and Peter Sekaer with Old Fashioned Kitchen on Virginia Farm, silver print, 1936, which was acquired by an institution ($5,250).

Norman Lewis, who worked sporadically with several entities of the WPA, had a highlight among the prints on offer, with the 1943 lithograph Comrades selling for $9,375.

Norman Lewis, ‘Comrades,’ lithograph, 1943. Sold for $9,375. Swann Galleries image

Further lithographs that captured collector attention included Benton Spruance’s The ’30s-Windshield, 1939, which brought a record for the print at $6,750; Howard Cook’s Lower Manhattan, 1939, at $8,750; and Grant Wood’s Tree Planting Group, 1937, at $8,750. Joseph Binder’s 1939 poster for the New York’s World Fair brought $5,250—the highest price for the work this century.

Benton Spruance, ‘The ’30s-Windshield,’ lithograph. 1939. Sold for $6,750. Swann Galleries image

Paintings were popular among collectors with records being established for Arthur Getz with a 1938 casein and tempera study selling for $10,625, and Abram Tromka with Third Avenue El, oil on canvas, 1941, at $7,000. Reginald Marsh was present with The Waterfront, New York, oil on canvas, 1943, which brought $13,750; as well as Leon Bibel with The Flood, oil on canvas, circa 1939, which realized $5,000.

Arthur Getz, Untitled (WPA Practice Piece), casein and tempera, 1938. Sold for $10,625, a record for the artist. Swann Galleries image

The sale totaled $460,490, which was well within the $396,900–$597,750 estimate. Of the
236 lots offered; 190 sold (81% sell-through rate by lot).

Abram Tromka, ‘Third Avenue El,’ oil on canvas, 1941. Sold for $7,000. Swann Galleries image

Harold Porcher, Swann Galleries’ director of modern and postwar art, headed the auction and reflected on the importance of the works offered.

“When our nation faced the stock market crash, banks locking their doors and unemployment numbers skyrocketing, many were ready to give in to fear and finger-pointing. Franklin Roosevelt was sworn into office in 1932 and managed to calm the fears and usher in plans to bring our country together and move us forward,” said Porcher. “The WPA projects, and the New Deal at large, is not just our nation’s history but a road map to show us that we can work together and overcome hardships as a nation. We are strongest in unity. Few of the artists of the WPA generation are still with us. Let us not forget them and their neighbors, and how they helped to usher us into the prosperous post-war era.”

For details contact Porcher at or 212-254-4710 x 67.

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