The works of African American artist Roland Ayers
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    Auction Finds

    The works of noted African American artists

    Artist Hughie Lee-Smith would be smiling right now, I thought as I watched phone bidders wrangling over one of his paintings at the Swann Auction Galleries’ sale of African American fine art this week. It would be a modest smile given the quiet and gentle man I met in 1995 when I interviewed him for a magazine story.

    I interviewed Lee-Smith and artist Lois Mailou Jones for a profile about unsung artists. He seemed so much a courtly gentleman, with provincial manners that appeared natural for a man who had actually been raised in Cleveland.

    "Desert Forms," an oil on masonite by Hughie Lee-Smith.

    By the time I met him, Lee-Smith had been around for decades, first receiving encouragement from a mother who enrolled him in art classes when he was young and then producing art on canvases and walls as part of the Works Project Administration (WPA) during the Depression. Several of his pieces were up for sale at the Swann auction, and phone-bidding for an oil on masonite called “Desert Forms” went tic-for-tac before it rested at $85,000. The painting had started off at $30,000.

    I was also happy to see five pieces by Jones. Three were Paris street scenes, one was a night scene in Hong Kong, and the last one was of the people of Haiti (home of her husband, artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël).

    At the preview, I chatted with a man who said he was unfamiliar with Jones’ work but was intensely interested in her after a friend mentioned that I had interviewed her. He peppered me with so many questions that I finally asked, “Who are you?” He never gave me a straight answer. One of his questions was whether Jones, who taught at Howard University, could have lived off the sale of her works. It was an answer I did not have and a question I did not ask her. If not then, I’m sure she could do it now.

    Her five paintings sold for $27,000, $15,000, $5,000, $4,200 and $4,000. The man didn’t return for the afternoon auction, but he could have been one of the phone bidders for her works.

    "Work," crayon and charcoal on illustration board by Charles White.

    The highest auction price of the day went to one of my favorite artists, Charles White. It was a 1953 crayon and charcoal on board called “Work,” showing one of his common subjects – working men and women bigger than life.

    Bidding started at $120,000 and steadily rose as two staffers called out the phone bids – “Pretend I’m not here, just shout out a number,” the auctioneer said to laughter from the audience. They did, and the bid lingered at $245,000 for so long a moment that the auctioneer was about to tap the bidding war over when a bidder raised it $10,000 more. The painting sold for $255,000, and the audience applauded. “Nice,” a woman next to me said to another.

    Another big moment came on a huge 1961 painting by Norman Lewis called “Promenade” that showed a lot of movement. When it sold for $90,000, the woman next to me said “Wow” and a man behind me said “Whew.” I think she was very happy at the value placed on African American art and he at how much money it cost. Another Lewis “Untitled” painting – “one of his important black paintings,” the auctioneer said – sold for $19,000.

    One of the most intriguing was a 1927 painting of Charles Lindbergh by an artist whose name was unfamiliar to me but not his persona. Cloyd Lee Boykin was the artist depicted in the Palmer Hayden painting “The Janitor Who Paints.” Like most artists, Boykin struggled to pay his bills and he worked as a janitor to help do so. Writing in his 1993 book “A History of African American Artists,” artist Romare Bearden said the two were friends and Boykin encouraged Hayden. “It’s sort of a protest painting,” Hayden is quoted as saying. “I painted it because no one called Boykin the artist. They called him the janitor.”

    Boykin apparently was a pretty active painter during the 1920s and 1930s, and many of his works were of African Americans and abolitionists, including Booker T. Washington and John Brown. He opened the first art school for African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. He also had works in the Harmon Foundation exhibitions.

    Here are some of the other highlights from the auction. The prices do not include the auction-house premium:

    "Rape of Europa," an oil on canvas by Hale Woodruff.

    Hale Woodruff, “Rape of Europa,” $90,000.

    Romare Bearden collages, from $10,000 to $46,000. His screen prints sold for less than $5,000.

    "At the Railroad," an oil on canvas by John Biggers.

    John Biggers, “At the Railroad,” $28,000. As I stood there looking at another Biggers’ painting during the preview, a man walked up to look, too, and we both joked about not being able to afford it. I suggested that he stand near the painting while I took a photo of it and him, and maybe my camera would magically cause it to become his. It was a fantasy, but it was innocent fun.

    Robert S. Duncanson, “Untitled (landscape),” $100,000.

    Edward M. Bannister, “Untitled (Rhode Island landscape),” $26,000.

    "Cleota," a painted plaster sculpture by Henry W. Bannarn.

    Henry W. Bannarn, “Cleota,” $20,000. Bannarn was a new artist for me. According to the auction catalog, he exhibited with the Harmon Foundation in 1933 and also produced art for the WPA.

    Barkley Hendricks, “Twins,” $90,000.

    Ernest Crichlow, “Dreams of the Big House,” $22,000

    Artis Lane sculpture, “Hurdlers,” $16,000.

    Michael Cummings quilt, “African Jazz #3,” $13,000.

    "3:45," an oil on canvas by Richard Mayhew.

    Richard Mayhew, “3:45,” $9,500.

    Kara Walker pop-up book, “Freedom, A Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times,” $2,400.

    Columbus Knox, “Pool Players,” $4,600.

    Robert Colescott, “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me….” $8,500.

    Augusta Savage and Norman Lewis, “The Hubert Log Cabin,” $15,000.

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