Robert Cromartie, an unknown African American artist
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    African American painting? I think not

    Something about the child wearing a yellow raincoat in the painting was endearing. I couldn’t put my finger on it, though. Maybe it was the sense of isolation, a solitary child alone in the rain. Maybe it evoked the feeling of being young and frivolous and not minding a gentle soak.

    Or maybe it was just the colors – the yellow raincoat and hat combined with the brown unpaved road and the green field that reminded me of a golf course and the dark green stand of trees across the way.

    The auctioneer called "Walking in the Rain" an African American painting.

    I knew that I’d love to have the painting hanging on my wall, and hoped no one else felt the same. It was a small piece, almost a perfect 5″ square in the frame. An acrylic on paper, it had been painted by someone I had never heard of before. I Googled but could not find the name Betty Werner. She likely had painted it for herself or a friend or relative not necessarily for the fame but because as an artist she had no other choice. She just had to paint.

    It was titled “Walking in the Rain,” and on the back was a Certificate of Authenticity that bore the title, her name, the medium and the date 9/30/96. It was nicely framed but a little dusty. I’d need to take it apart to check the condition, so I would be buying it on faith. That’s the way it goes with paintings at auctions. In most instances, you can’t tear the paper off the back to see if there’s any damage. Usually, though, the prices are so low that it doesn’t really matter.

    A low price was what I was expecting to pay for this painting, but that notion evaporated as soon as the auctioneer claimed it was African American. No, it’s not, I said to no one in particular. The child in the painting was covered from head to toe, and it was hard to tell the gender much less the race. A yellow rain hat covered the head, and the artist had painted a sliver of the face the color black.

    The child's face is a sliver of black in the painting.

    I knew that his pronouncing it as African American made the painting a little more appealing to a particular set of buyers. African American sells these days, especially Black Americana, and any hint of an item with that pedigree gets noticed. I’ve been to enough auctions and read enough on the subject to know that Black Americana pieces – most of which are crude and offensive – are widely collected.

    The auctioneer knew that, too, just as he certainly knew that nothing in the painting remotely resembled anything African American (just being a face painted black doesn’t count). He was trying to sell it as high as he could, and like many auctioneers he engaged in a tad bit of hyperbole

    A Certificate of Authenticity on the back of the painting "Walking in the Rain."

    So, the $5 I had planned to pay for a cute little painting would now go crazily wild. The auctioneer started the bidding high as usual and finally dropped it to $5, at which I took the bid. Surprisingly, only one or two other people bidded against me, and I finally got the painting for $17.

    Afterward, an auction regular who primarily buys art glass congratulated me on my win. He was just as confounded as me that the auctioneer deemed the painting African American. It’s nice, he said, but that thought never occurred to him.

    That’s the nature of auctions and auctioneers. A little hyperbole to build interest in an item and hike the bidding is all part of the show.

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