Auction Buyers Are Catching on to African-American Art
“I don’t need to tell you, sir, how great this is,” said Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker last Wednesday evening, leaning over his rostrum and trying to coax another eight-figure bid out of the New York dealer David Zwirner for Kerry James Marshall’s 1997 masterwork, “Past Times.”
Moments later, Mr. Barker knocked the lot down to one of three telephone bidders for $21.1 million with fees. A wryly updated “fête champêtre,” showing black suburbanites relaxing in a Chicago park, had just set an auction high for any work by a living African-American artist. The painting was bought by the Grammy Award-winning rapper and music producer, Sean Combs, better known by his former stage names Puff Daddy and P. Diddy.
For many, this sale was by far the most significant moment in the latest biannual series of auctions of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art in New York. But what did it signify?
“That and other results signaled that finally African-American artists are regarded as having the same historical value and price points as their peers,” said Todd Levin, a private dealer and adviser based in New York, who last year curated the exhibition “Power,” devoted to African-American female artists, at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles. “It also signaled an intensification of activity among African-American collectors,” Mr. Levin added.
As Mr. Levin suggested, there were plenty of other results last week that suggested a surge in demand for African-American art. Sotheby’s Wednesday evening contemporary sale began with five works by leading African-American artists sold to raise money for a new building at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
“Speak, Birdman,” a freshly completed mixed-media abstract by Mark Bradford, was pushed by as many as a dozen bidders to $6.8 million, more than double the presale estimate. Last week, the Broad museum in Los Angeles announced that it had been the purchaser of Mr. Bradford’s 12-foot-wide 2007 abstract, “Helter Skelter I,” which sold in March at Phillipsfor $12 million — the previous auction high for a living African-American artist. In the same announcement, the Broad said it had also bought a new painting by Mr. Marshall.