Swann African American Sale Reaches Highest Total Ever at $5.1m

Hale Woodruff, Carnival ($250-350k) $665,000

Swann celebrated the end of its 14th year holding African American art auctions—a category the small New York house pioneered—by hitting the highest ever auction total. On October 7th, Swann sold $5,106,585 worth of art across 201 lots. That reflects an 86% sell-through rate.

The top lot of the sales was an oil painting by Hale Woodruff, the most valuable of his abstract works to be sold, that made $665,000. It was followed by an Elizabeth Catlett head that made a new record for the artist at $485,000. The previous record was set just two years ago at Swann too.

These would be strong results in any context. But Swann’s strength in the category continues despite the broad growth of sales of African American artists at larger auction houses. A quick look at a chart of Swann’s results in the category shows how far these sales have come.

Swann African American Art sales, 2008-2021

The chart clearly shows that the last four years have represented an entirely different level of market activity. In early 2020, Swann had an additional sale of work owned by the Johnson Publishing company. That sale offset some of the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic.

The growth hasn’t only come because of the rising value of African American art, especially the growth in interest and bidding for young figurative painters of the African diaspora. Indeed, Swann’s sales are more focused on historical artists. Although artists like Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam and Simone Leigh have begun to appear at mainstream auction houses, the value in Swann’s sales tend to be located in work by artists who still do not get featured in other auction house’s sales.

Swann African American art, by sale with average prices

The chart above tracks the results of each sale against the average prices in each sale. Those average prices are more volatile than the overall results. The Johnson Publishing collection had very high average prices for the 87 works sold. That’s not uncommon for single-owner sales. The dip in average prices later during the pandemic year of 2020 and their steady recovery along with sale totals during 2021 suggest the market has been able to retain price levels since 2018.

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