First Auction of Artists of the WPA at Swann Establishes Four Records

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John Vachon, a select group of 38 vintage photographs, silver prints, circa 1937-42. Sold for $37,500, a record for the grouping.
John Vachon, a select group of 38 vintage photographs, silver prints, circa 1937-42. Sold for $37,500, a record for the grouping.

THE ARTISTS OF THE WPA

Sale 2557; February 4, 2021

Sale total: $460,490

Estimates for sale as a whole: $396,900–$597,750

We offered 236 lots; 190 sold (81% sell-through rate by lot)

All prices include Buyer’s Premium

New York—The Artists of the WPA were on display in Swann GalleriesThursday, February 4 auction. The multi-departmental sale was headed by Harold Porcher, the house’s director of Modern and Post-War Art, and featured paintings, prints, photographs, posters and related ephemera by artists whose careers were sustained by the Works Progress Administration and other agencies of the New Deal. 

Norman Lewis, Comrades, lithograph, 1943. Sold for $9,375.
Norman Lewis, Comrades, lithograph, 1943. Sold for $9,375.

The sale was led by a selection of 38 vintage silver prints spanning 1932 to 42 by John Vachon, a record for the grouping, at $37,500. Vachon began his work for the Farm Security Administration as an assistant messenger. As his interest in photography grew, he began to make his own photographs and accompanied Arthur Rothstein on one of his assignments; in 1938 Vachon would have his first solo assignment for the FSA in Nebraska. Additional photography highlights include Dorothea Lange, with Hoe Culture, Alabama Tenant Farmer near Anniston, silver print, 1936 ($8,125), and Migrant Mother, silver print, 1936, printed circa 1970 ($7,000); Berenice Abbott with Manhattan Bridge (Looking Up), silver contact print, 1936 ($7,000); and Peter Sekaer with Old Fashioned Kitchen on Virginia Farm, silver print, 1936, which was acquired by an institution ($5,250). 

Norman Lewis, who worked sporadically with several entities of the WPA, had a highlight among the prints on offer, with the 1943 lithograph Comrades selling for $9,375. Further lithographs that captured collector attention included Benton Spruance’s The 30’s-Windshield, 1939, which brought a record for the print at $6,750; Howard Cook’s Lower Manhattan, 1939, at $8,750; and Grant Wood’s Tree Planting Group, 1937, at $8,750. Joseph Binder’s 1939 poster for the New York’s World Fair brought $5,250—the highest price for the work this century. 

Arthur Getz, Untitled (WPA Practice Piece), casein and tempera, 1938. Sold for $10,625, a record for the artist.
Arthur Getz, Untitled (WPA Practice Piece), casein and tempera, 1938. Sold for $10,625, a record for the artist.

Paintings were popular among collectors with records being established for Arthur Getz with a 1938 casein and tempera study selling for $10,625, and Abram Tromka with Third Avenue El, oil on canvas, 1941, at $7,000. Reginald Marsh was present with The Waterfront, New York, oil on canvas, 1943, which brought $13,750; as well as Leon Bibel with The Flood, oil on canvas, circa 1939, which realized $5,000.

“How people react in times of hardship are telling of who that person is at their core. When our nation faced the stock market crash, banks locking their doors, and unemployment numbers skyrocketing, many were ready to give in to fear and finger pointing. Franklin Roosevelt was sworn into office in 1932 and managed to calm the fears, and usher in plans to bring our country together and move us forward. The WPA projects, and the New Deal at large, is not just our nation’s history but a road map to show us that we can work together and overcome hardships as a nation. We are strongest in unity. Few of the artists of the WPA generation are still with us. Let us not forget them and their neighbors, and how they helped to usher us into the prosperous post-war era,” Porcher reflected on the importance of the works featured in the sale.  

The house is currently accepting quality consignments for the spring 2021 season. For the house’s most up-to-date auction schedule please visit swanngalleries.com.

Key:  † = Record for the Artist; * = Record for Print; C = Collector; D = Dealer

Additional highlights can be found here.

Captions:

Lot 54: John Vachon, a select group of 38 vintage photographs, silver prints, circa 1937-42. Sold for $37,500, a record for the grouping.

Lot 103: Norman Lewis, Comrades, lithograph, 1943. Sold for $9,375.

Lot 181: Arthur Getz, Untitled (WPA Practice Piece), casein and tempera, 1938. Sold for $10,625, a record for the artist.

Specialist: Harold Porcher • [email protected] • 212-254-4710 x 67

Chief Marketing Officer: Alexandra Nelson • [email protected] • 212-254-4710 x 19

Public Relations Associate: Kelsie Jankowski • [email protected] • 212-254-4710 x 23

Social media: @swanngalleries  

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ILLUSTRATED CATALOGUE, ADDL. IMAGES & COMPLETE PRICES REALIZED ON REQUEST

Swann Auction Galleries is a third-generation family business as well as the world’s largest auction house for works on paper. In the last 75 years, Swann has repeatedly revolutionized the trade with such innovations as the first U.S. auction dedicated to photographs and the world’s only department of African-American Fine Art. More than 30 auctions and previews are held annually in Swann Galleries’ two-floor exhibition space in Midtown Manhattan, and online worldwide. Visit swanngalleries.com for more information.