The Emergence of Undervalued African American Artists
Posted November 1, 2018
Recent high-profile market activity surrounding work by African American artists has been taken as a sign that at last history is being corrected. In a recent string of notable auctions, from the historic $110.5 million sum that Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa spent on Basquiat’s punchy 1982 painting of a skull, to the $21.1 million record price paid by the rapper and businessman Sean Combs, aka Diddy, this past May for Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times 1997.
However the market is top-heavy, only two other artists —Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Sam Gilliam—have generated total auction sales of more than $10 million since 2008. For years, there were only four artists whose work would sell for more than $100,000, two of them born in the 19th century and two in the 20th century: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Robert Duncanson, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence.
The focus on younger contemporary artists is typical of many markets just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential. It starts with the art of the present day and then inevitably looks back in time.
Over the past two years, the market has grown considerably and the pool of buyers has deepened, too. People who collect Color Field painting or postwar abstraction are looking at Sam Gilliam while New York School collectors are looking for Norman Lewis.
For many Black modern artists, the seeming dearth of big prices is simply a matter of having been paid little heed for so long. And now with recent discovery by the market and mainstream museums, there is a huge opportunity—and not because they are African American, but because they are great artists.
For some of the most recognized Modern artists, it is about supply: just try finding a great Jacob Lawrence for sale. If a major work by a Modern legend such as Alma Thomas or Romare Bearden were to appear at auction, “I suspect it would sell for numbers that would stun most auction buyers—who right now probably couldn’t describe a work by either artist,” says Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of Art Agency, Partners.
Commentary drawn from excerpts of research by
Art Agency, Partners and artnet