Around the Auction World: February 2021

James Ardis
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Collage of images from around the auction world. Photo credit from left to right: Christie’s, Rare Posters, Black River Auction. Collage by Pranit Dubey (Auction Daily).
Collage of images from around the auction world. Photo credit from left to right: Christie’s, Rare Posters, Black River Auction. Collage by Pranit Dubey (Auction Daily).

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others last summer reignited discussions about racial biases in the United States and around the world. Many called on the auction industry, in particular, to take structural reform seriously. For too long, the industry leaned on white male experts interpreting a largely white male canon. 

The celebration of Black artists should be a year-round pursuit. This year’s Black History Month, though, provided an early look into how auction houses plan to combat racial biases. 

Auction Daily breaks down how different auction houses approached Black History Month, along with the other highlights from around the auction world in February 2021.

Mickalene Thomas at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2019. Image from Andrew Mangum for The New York Times.
Mickalene Thomas at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2019. Image from Andrew Mangum for The New York Times.

Industry Trends

Some of the most well-respected Black American artists had pieces available this February. That included two screenprints by Jacob Lawrence, presented by Black River Auction. Meanwhile, Rare Posters offered a 2015 print of Mickalene ThomasI’ve Been Good to Me.

How will auction houses and the art world keep the conversation going beyond Black History Month? February was a time to analyze the changes made so far to facilitate art world diversity. Some experts fear these moves are more about virtue-signaling than long-term change.

View of the “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” show at Shin Gallery for the Outsider Art Fair. Photo by Olya Vysotskaya.
View of the “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” show at Shin Gallery for the Outsider Art Fair. Photo by Olya Vysotskaya.

Elsewhere in the art world, many collectors and dealers look to return to in-person events, whenever safe. New York’s Outsider Art Fair, which concluded on February 7th, was an early glimpse at the small-scale events collectors might expect in 2021. The fair included a show dedicated to Black voices in outsider art, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” 

Auction Highlights

How should auction houses handle historical memorabilia linked to real-world suffering? That debate surrounded a sale of KGB artifacts this month, less than 30 years after the agency’s campaign of surveillance and torture ended.

Collectors had more light-hearted fare to choose from in a Guinness World Records auction on February 19th. The World’s Largest Pinball and the World’s Smallest Bicycle were among the highlights.

Atari Hercules coin-op pinball game from the Guinness World Records Museum. Image from Ripley Auctions.
Atari Hercules coin-op pinball game from the Guinness World Records Museum. Image from Ripley Auctions.

Sotheby’s presented work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude this month, as well as artists they collected. Among the top lots was Christo’s Store Front, Project and a portrait of Jackie Kennedy by Andy Warhol.

Meanwhile, Christie’s spent much of the month building excitement for a sketch of La Mousmé by Vincent van Gogh. It will come to auction on March 1st. If it reaches its lofty USD 10 million estimate, the lot will set an auction record for a drawing by van Gogh.

Press photograph of African American leaders riding a segregated bus in December of 1956. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.
Press photograph of African American leaders riding a segregated bus in December of 1956. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.

Quote of the Month 

“We recognize increasing efforts among institutional and private buyers to build and strengthen their collections relative to the Black American experience… We anticipate sales in this category will continue to strive to recognize the achievements of these extraordinary men and women and their central role in shaping this nation.”

– Katie Horstman of Cowan’s Auctions discussing the industry-wide effort to better represent Black artists. The auction house presented its first dedicated African Americana sale in February. 

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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