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    Auction Finds

    Sculpture of an African man’s head by Fred Presser

    The black sculpted head was almost lost among the pile of stuff on the auction table. Maybe that’s why I had walked right past it during my first preview of items that were hours away from being auctioned.

    It appeared to be the head of a black man. The artist had fashioned the lips in the shape and size that had commonly been used to represent black men – thick and full. Based on the cut of the hair and an element on the back of the head, the man could have been African.

    The head seemed to be made of a white material (several sites described it as ceramic) and painted black. Flecks of white could be seen in tiny spots where the sculpture had been nicked and chipped.

    Fred Presser African head sculpture

    A close-up view of the Fred Press African head sculpture.

    It appeared to be old rather than contemporary, and I wondered who had created it. So I turned the head, which wasn’t very heavy, first to the bottom and then the sides. The artist’s name was slightly hidden under a small recess on one side:

    Fred Press.

    I didn’t recognize the name, so I Googled for a quick identification and found that he was a 20th century American artist. I also came across another copy of the auction sculpture. That was not unusual, I learned later, because Press and his brother sold reproductions of his sculptures through a company they founded in the 1930s called Contemporary Arts Inc. It is not clear, though, if this piece was produced by that company.

    Most noted for his sculptures, Press was also a painter, illustrator, portraitist, designer and commercial artist. He was born in Boston in 1919 of Russian parents who had immigrated to the United States in the preceding decade, according a website devoted to him and his work. As a teenager in the 1930s, he won awards for four years in the Proctor and Gamble Soap Sculpture Competition. He studied at an art school in Boston where he later taught.

    Fred Presser African head sculpture

    The full face and back of the Fred Presser African head sculpture.

    In the Air Force during World War II, he was stationed in Panama where he edited the Sixth Air Force’s official publication called the Caribbean Breeze. The publication told of the culture and history of the area. In the 1950s he designed glassware and other dish wares at a company on Fifth Avenue.

    During the 1990s, he created two of the bronze bas-reliefs at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington under a commission from the Navy. He was said to have won first place for a slave sculpture at the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art in New Orleans (now the New Orleans Museum of Art).

    Press exhibited in single and group exhibitions, and his works are in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA, and other museums.

    He died in 2012 at age 92.

    Fred Presser African head sculpture

    Fred Presser’s name on the African head sculpture.

    I found several reproductions of the head sculpture on the web. Two were offered as a pair last year at an auction in New York, which identified them as African men with tribal headdress and made in the mid-20th century. They did not sell, despite their $75 starting bid. Others were offered on retail sites for up to $1,200, and one sold for $695. Another went unsold on eBay for $350.

    I didn’t get a chance to bid or leave a bid on the sculpture because I was flustered and disappointed early on after losing out on some African American photographs I desperately wanted – and I summarily forgot about the piece. I suspect that it did not sell for my kind of price because it had been sculpted by a listed artist and because “black” sells very well at auction these days.

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