When I walked into Swann Galleries I was overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia. This feeling was one of familiarity with the art from the Africa Diaspora, which filled every wall and space in the room; as well as a familiarity with the previous owners of this beautiful collection. The collection was formerly owned by the powerhouse family-owned Johnson Publishing Company that was founded in 1942 by husband and wife team John H. Johnson and Eunice W. Johnson.
If you grew up in the 70's or 80's, you remember like I do your parent's monthly subscription of Ebony and Jet gracing your living room coffee table. It was through those familiar pages that you were able to see people who looked like you adorning the smooth and glossy pages. This was the time when I first realized a loved how magazine pages felt between my fingertips. It was a time when it meant everything to know there was a family owned business headquartered just up the road in Chicago's famous downtown loop. A family that looked like mine and so many of my friends actually owned the 11-story building, which had been designed by an African-American architect John Moutoussamy.
So, on January 28th I was hit in the face and in the heart with that same feeling when I entered the Swann Gallery last month. But the feeling was bittersweet, as this was the bankruptcy auction of the Johnson Publishing Company art collection that once hung on the walls of the Publisher's former headquarters at 820 S. Michigan Avenue.
Although few of us had seen this wonderful 87-piece collection, it felt so familiar when walking through the gallery, as these artists are accomplished and hold such a significant place in African-American art, African Diaspora art and American art history.
The works that genuinely moved me the most on that day were auctioned for 2-6 times higher than there pre-auction estimates. There was even a piece that went for over 37 times its pre-auction estimate, which was an over 4ft tall striking painting titled Jack Johnson by Robin Harper (Kwasi Seitu Asante) whose pre-auction estimate was $3,000-4,000, and was sold for $185,000.
The pre-auction estimate was $1.2 million. However, the auction fetched nearly $3 million.
I wish I could show all of the amazing works, but here are some of my favorites.
Moonrise by Kasbah (Morocco) by Henry Ossawa Tanner (Oil on linen canvas, 1912)
The above Tanner work's pre-auction estimate was $150,000-250,000. It was sold for $365,000.
Departure by Richard Mayhew (Oil on linen canvas, 2006)
The above Mayhew work's pre-auction estimate was $50,000-75000. It was auctioned for $233,000.
Untitled by Carrie Mae Weems (1996-1997)
The above work has seven panels of framed chromogenic prints and sandblasted text on glass and had a pre-auction estimate of $100,000-150,000 and was sold for $305,000.
Jump Rope by Barbara Johnson Zuber (1926-2019)
This oil on canvas work, circa 1970 had a pre-auction estimate of $1,000-1,500 and was sold for $87,500.
by Theresa Majeed