Inside the Fine Art Game

The market for fine art by African-Americans reached an exciting and pivotal moment in February 2007.  Swann Auction Galleries in New York City, noted for vintage photographs, prints and drawings, hosted the first sale by a major auction house devoted exclusively to African-American fine art.  Auction sales exceeded Swann’s predictions raking in $2.7 million, seventeen sales records were set, and participation was the largest seen by the auction house, with over 200 attendees.  African-American fine art is being included in major museum exhibitions, documented and discussed, and has emerged as the most actively collected art in the marketplace.  Wangechi Mutu, 39, maintains a waiting list of pre-screened buyers for her next works, and recently sold out before opening night.  Investing in fine art is an enriching pursuit, this primer can help demystify the valuation process, develop your approach to collecting, and dispel the perception that collecting fine art is for the wealthy.

Before Punk Came Funk, 2010, mixed media ink, collage, by Wangenchi Mutu.

Growing awareness grows demand.  “Black art speaks to the black experience and that is what sets it apart,” explains Eric Hanks, art instructor and owner of M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, California.  “The work has to have meaning that doesn’t have to be that deep.  “Bearden [for instance] references his childhood in Pittsburgh and his grandparents who are black.”  According to Hanks, 53, “the early part of the 20th century and the latter part of the 19th century are the eras collectors and museums clamor for” because there is no more of it being made and those works fill historic and aesthetic gaps in American art collections.

“Contemporary art today is about investigation, not accepting boundaries,” says Nigel Freeman, 39, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.  “Emma Thomas was the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Whitney Museum.  She was [a retired teacher] in her 60s when she achieved great fame,” he says.  “I had a 5”x8” paper piece that sold for $16,000, her large canvases command six figures.  “Recently there has been growing awareness through touring museum shows; museums are active in elevating and acquiring works,” shares Freeman.”

Art in black and white.  The Swann sale ignites a new dialogue that explores the implication that these artists’ works cannot stand on the same merit as their European counterparts.  “[Auctions] put [the work] into the marketplace,” says Franklin Sirmans, curator at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, “but [the work] can’t be limited to only showing in a racial construct.  What’s the point?!   I don’t think any of those artists created the work for it to only be valued next to other black artists.”  “Swann has taken a very bold and significant step that other auction houses have not,” opines appraiser and art adviser Halima Taha author of Collecting African American Fine Art: Works on Paper and Canvas (Verve Editions; $50.00).

Art appraiser and author Halima Taha at NBAF.

“Sotheby’s and Christies would traditionally include African-American artists, but sporadically.  Not annually, not the same artist.  So there would be sporadic values.  Sales were lower than what the work was actually selling for, in that case auctions were doing a disservice.”  Taha, 46, asserts, “It is extremely important that these artists be included in auctions because the auction is the international marketplace, it’s not a black marketplace, not a white marketplace, not an American marketplace, it’s international.”

Gallery owner Bill Hodges highlights another conundrum when he said a Norman Lewis abstract he has priced at $135,000 would sell for $10 million if it were by Jackson Pollock.  While demand for African American fine art grows, prices are yet to catch an uptick momentum.

The Yellow Hat, oil on canvas, 1936, by Norman Lewis.

The off-the-record whisper from art aficionados is that an African-American artist with white representation stands to attain greater access and exposure, and command higher prices and fatter paychecks as a result.  But Hanks insists, “talent, connections, luck, perseverance and a thick skin” are what artists need to be able to seize the coveted attention of the Whitney, MoMa and Guggenheim.

Fine art game.  To seize an edge, seasoned collectors train an eye on portals for emerging talents such as the Kenkeleba Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts in New York City, The Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, The Southside Community Art Center in Chicago, as well as incubators such as the artist-in-residence program at The Studio Museum in Harlem.  Understanding how an emerging artist is transformed to a celebrated voice may influence your approach to buying work by an aspiring talent.  “It’s the collective activity of the artist, the dealers, the collectors, the curators, the critics and the auction houses.  Their interaction with one another enables them to become the cultural and economic arbiters of taste, together that is what propels an artist into the marketplace,” explains Taha.  “One by itself isn’t going to work.  You need dealers to contact the critics and to have relationships with auction houses and major collectors.  That’s the real art game.  [There are] a lot of incredibly talented [artists] but they’re not interacting with curators who are part of that collective activity.”  Collector Brenda Taggart Thompson remarks, “People miss [out on] some important art because [those works] are not supported by the game.” 

Morthyn Brito, 2011, oil on linen by Kehinde Wiley at Art Basel Miami 2011.

History affects value.  A well-rounded collection gives a sense of the various approaches to a particular style.  “Provenance (history of ownership) supports and can increase the value of a piece,” offers Hanks, an art adviser for distinguished actors, doctors and athletes, this document establishes authenticity and identifies previous owners, “if they are famous it will positively impact the value.”  Recently Eldzier Cortor’s Portrait of a Woman, once owned by author Ralph Ellison, fetched $110,000 at auction, it was estimated to sell for $30,000.

You Do, 1993-1994, cut paper on canvas, by Kara Walker.

“When provenance doesn’t pan out and the work seems suspicious it makes the piece seem stolen or fabricated,” shares Hanks.  Appraisers gather provenance but are not obligated to authenticate art.  They are expected to check the Art Loss Registry and the FBI’s registry of stolen works.  “The burden of duty is much greater on the person authenticating the piece than the appraiser.”

Get the right appraisal.  Yolanda and Greg Head of Stone Mountain, Georgia, have been collecting African-American abstraction since 1999, “I have my collection insured,” offers Greg, 49.  “I look at the value over time [by] looking at auctions and auction records.  He also attends the art mart at The Fine Art Fair of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta to see what sold.  “It gives me a sense of how my art has escalated; every three to four years I have it appraised.”  Collectors must be clear about their use for an appraisal and disclose that to the appraiser, offers Taha.  Appraisals can be for insurance against loss, inventory or tax benefit when donating art to museums.  Researching the comparable economic analysis is the same for all appraisals, but the approach to mathematical calculations vary, hence, specifying intended use is essential.  An appraiser’s fee schedule ranges $150—$500 per hour depending on their expertise and resources.

Collectors on collecting.  Enthusiasts say ‘buy what you love’ because there is no fault-proof formula for what to buy and when to sell.  Yet most everyone has a faithful strategy for collecting:

Former NBA player Elliot Perry, 38, of Memphis, Tennessee invested 11 years to grow his collection by contemporary and master artists, he investigates a dealer’s reputation and cultivates a relationship with dealers intent on “helping build a collection not just move inventory.”  A good dealer “should have a feel for what you like.”  Another attractive quality is “when a dealer is willing to lose a deal [by advising] you to go elsewhere because another gallery has a better quality piece.”

Rooftops on Wabash, 1938, oil on canvas, by Eldzier Cortor.

“There is a misnomer [that] collectors are plunking down thousands of dollars all at once,” shares Head, “galleries understand they have to ‘work with you,’ the code phrase for payment plan.”  Head reads periodicals like Art in America and the International Review of African-American Art, and suggests shows like Art Basel, Art Off the Main, and Art Chicago to keep abreast of trends.

Brenda Taggart Thompson and husband Larry, of Greenwich, Connecticut, have collected since 1977.  “Books help refine your eye to see beauty in lots of places,” says Brenda, “not just where some gallery has decided it is.”  Thompson’s reference library contains African American Art and Artists by Samella Lewis (University of California Press; $70.00), St. James Guide to Black Artists by Schomburg Center for Research, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-bibliographical Directory by Theresa Cederholm, Two Centuries of Black American Art by David C. Driskell, and history books on American art and photography.

Knowing the history adds value to works and allows collectors to have cross-references when they work with art dealers.  “Attending lectures, going to museums, listening to curators talk about how [shows] are put together,” says Thompson, “are instrumental to a collector’s growth.”  Hanks adds, “look at art wherever it may be, your understanding will improve and your collection will reflect it.”


Previously published, edited version in Black Enterprise.

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