Auctions | March 18, 2014

Auction Records for Early African-American Artists at Swann Galleries


New York—On February 13, Swann Galleries conducted an auction devoted to works by African-American artists active in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Titled Shadows Uplifted, the auction featured paintings, sculptures, drawings and fine prints by artists who emerged from the shadows of academic and genre painting and defined a new visual culture during the Harlem Renaissance and WPA eras.

The top lot in the sale was William H. Johnson’s On a John Brown Flight, a circa 1942-45 color pochoir and screenprint, which brought $81,250*—a record for any print by the artist at auction. Also setting records were Joseph Delaney’s Harlem, Sunday Morning, oil on board, 1942, which achieved an artist record price of $40,000 and Dox Thrash’s Wandering Boy, watercolor, circa 1940s, a record for a watercolor by this artist known for his prints, at $13,750.

Bringing $70,000 was Coal Breakers, Hughie Lee-Smith’s first known social-realist oil painting, a rare example of his work from the late 1930s and one of his earliest paintings to come to auction.

Two female artists who had works appearing at auction for the first time were Warwick, Rhode Island artist Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, whose Untitled (Head), wood sculpture, circa early 1930s, sold for $35,000, and Pauline Powell Burns—a granddaughter of a slave from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello who became an accomplished painter—Violets, oil on cardstock, circa 1890, $13,750.

Other significant works by women were Beulah Ecton Woodard’s African Woman, glazed terra cotta, circa 1937-38, $18,750 and Augusta Savage’s best-known work, Lift Every Voice and Sing, in white metal with copper patina, circa 1939, $23,750.

Another sculpture of note was William E. Artis’s Michael (Head of a Boy), cast bronze, circa 1950, $25,000.

Among the earliest examples were Edward M. Bannister’s Untitled (Landscape with Woman Seated by a Stone Wall), oil on canvas, 1881, $17,500 and Untitled (Rhode Island Landscape), oil on canvas, 1886. $13,750; Charles Ethan Porter’s Still Life with Roses, oil on canvas, circa 1885-87, $15,000; and Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Untitled (View of the Seine), oil on plywood, circa 1900, $20,000.

Moving into the modern era were two pieces by Chicago artist Eldzier Cortor: Tête-à-Tête, oil on canvas, 1934, which brought $35,000, and Untitled (Nude Seated on a Bed), pen, ink, pastel and wash, circa 1948, $27,500; as well as James A. Porter’s well-known Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, circa 1935, $18,750; Hale Woodruff’s Portrait of a Girl, oil on board, circa 1935-40, $27,500; Palmer Hayden’s Colorado Honky Tonk, oil on canvas, circa 1940-49, $20,000 and Norman Lewis’s Untitled (Abstract Composition), oil on panel, 1947, $20,000.

Apropos of the weather was Aaron Douglas’s Snow Storm, charcoal, circa 1950-55, which nearly tripled its pre-sale estimate to bring $30,000.

For complete results, an illustrated auction catalogue (with prices realized on request) is available for $35 from Swann Galleries, Inc., 104 East 25th Street, New York, NY 10010, or online at

For further information, or to consign items to upcoming auctions of African-American Fine Art, please contact Nigel Freeman at 212-254-4710, extension 33, or via email at

*Prices include buyer’s premium.

Image: William H. Johnson, On a John Brown Flight, color pochoir and screenprint, circa 1942-45. Brought $81,250 (including buyer's premium), a record for a print by the artist.