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The resistible rise of African American artists

Updated: May 28, 2019

In the last few years, the white art world seems to have eventually recognized the importance of African-American modern and contemporary artists. Indeed, the latter have been performing very well at auction lately while museums and galleries are striving to acquire their pieces and sign with the most promising newcomers. However, this effervescence seems to benefit only a handful of artists, as the vast majority of African American talent remain deeply undervalued.

2018 was undoubtedly a record year for African American artists at auction, as shown in a recent study published by Artnet. A quarter of total sales made by African-American artists at auction over the last decade was made in the first half of 2018, which represents a staggering $550 million. According to the same research, African American artists accounted for 6 out of the 10 most expensive contemporary works sold at auction in 2018.

The first Untitled painting acquired by Japanese collector Yuzaku Maezawa for $57.2 million in 2016

Jean-Michel Basquiat is by far the leading figure of this segment as he accounts for 77% of the $2.2 billion spent on works by black American artists in the last 10 years. Some of his sales have hit the headlines recently, such as the untitled skull bought by Japanese collector Yuzaku Maezawa in 2017 for $110.5 million. One year earlier, the latter had already broken the artist’s auction record by acquiring another piece for $57.2 million.

There is only a handful of contemporary African American artists who can compete with Basquiat at auction, the first of whom is Kerry James Marshall, becoming the most expensive living black artist in 2018 when hip-hop superstar Sean "Diddy" Combs acquired his "Past Time" painting for a whopping $21.1 million. According to the Artnet study, Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, Julie Mehretu and David Hammons are completing this prestigious list, with $297 million of cumulated sales over the last decade.

Mark Bradford's "Helter Skelter" sold for a whopping $12 million in 2018

Modern artists also play a part in the recent African American market surge. A painting by Jacob Lawrence, who is often considered as one of the two most prominent black modernists along with Romare Bearden, was sold in November 2018 for a staggering $6.1 million, thus tripling its high estimate.

This painting by modernist master Jacob Lawrence was acquired for $6.1 million at the end of last year

There is a final market segment that has performed well at auction in the last few years with mid-price works, although it only accounts for a small part of global sales. It is composed of 3 different types of artists; the first are the established ones with a long career who were recently rediscovered such as Ed Clark, Frank Bowling (although he is British), Sam Gilliam and Jack Whitten. Indeed, the last two saw their prices increase 10-fold in the last few years with major retrospectives held at the Metropolitan Museum in 2017 and Kunstmuseum during Art the 2018 edition of Art Basel. They both went from auction sales around the $100,000 mark in 2016 to 7-figure paintings such as Gilliam's Lady Day II painting and Whitten's Special Checking, which sold respectively for $2,17 million in November 2018, and $2,66 million in March 2019.

Sam Gilliam's Lady Day II sold for $2,17 million at Christie's in New York last November

Last but not least, Henry Taylor also belongs to this category, although he is a bit younger. His international prestige has been increasing over the last few years, with works reaching prices slightly above $1 million at auction and with major exhibitions at the MoMA PS1 and the Venice Biennale recently.

Rashid Johnson's "Color Man" was sold at Phillips for $500,000 in May 15, 2019

The second category of new successful artists is the mid-career ones who are likely to become the stars of tomorrow such as Rashid Johnson or Adam Pendleton. The latter will soon have his first solo show at the MoMa and his prices at auction have been skyrocketing lately, with a record set at $262,812 in March 2019 at Sotheby's London for a black monochrome from his Black Dada Series.

As for Johnson, his prices on the primary market have doubled in the last few months and the artist's latest series are performing really well at auction: a piece from the Anxious Man series just sold for $500,000 at Phillips in New York during the May sales, which broke his former record that was held by a $435,000 piece from his Escape Collage series.

The last category is comprised of newcomers around 30, who recently made a remarkable entrance in the auction world such as Jordan Casteel, Tschabalala Self, Nina Chanel Abney or Christina Quarles. The latter, who had her first solo show in 2017 in Los Angeles, has already passed the $200,000 mark at auction with two majors sales : a $225,000 piece sold last November at Phillips and a painting which was acquired at the same auction house on May 15, 2019 for $275,000.

David Hammons' African American flag at the Studio Museum in Harlem

From an institutional point of view, 2018 was also a record year with the highest number of artworks by African American artists acquired by museums according to a recent study by In Other Words. However, the proportion of these works – which represents 2.3% of all acquisitions –­­ remains incredibly small. It is therefore a very recent phenomenon to which only a few museums have strongly contributed. Among these, the Studio Museum played a major role as it accounted for 2.7% of the exhibitions of works by African American artists in the last 10 years according to the same study.

The most prestigious institutions of the art world are currently trying to catch up, such as the Metropolitan Museum of New York which organized an exhibition of African American portrait photography at the end of last year, or the Tate Britain that will present a retrospective of Frank Bowling’s work starting from 31 May, 2019. The Tate Modern exhibition "Soul of a Nation" in 2017 was also a milestone in the rediscovery of black post-war artists.

Nathaniel Mary Queen in his New York Studio

Last but not least, art galleries have been increasingly turning to black American Artists lately; major institutions such as Gagosian or Hauser & Wirth have announced that they've signed Nathaniel Mary Quinn and Glenn Ligon respectively since the beginning of this year. Both of them are representative of the diversity of African American artists, as the first is a 42-year-old newcomer and the latter is one of the biggest names in contemporary art today.

There has been a remarkable race towards black American artists in other galleries too recently, such as Lehman Maupin which signed with MacArthur Binion in 2018 after his acclaimed show in Milan at the gallery Massimo Di Carlo.


The African American art market has a strong winners-takes-all structure, with a handful of superstars who perform extremely-well and a mass of undervalued artists, some of whom are currently rising to critical and commercial success. These characteristics generate a great deal of acquisition opportunities for both collectors and investors, who have the chance to acquire culturally significant artworks at a relatively affordable price.

American hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz standing in front of his Kehinde Wiley's painting

This catch-up phenomenon is allowing African American artists to make a remarkable entrance into the dominant culture of the once all-white art world after decades of denial and invisibility. This movement is very similar to what has happened in the music industry since the 1990's. For example, following its birth as an African American counter-culture, hip-hop slowly became a mainstream movement which is now dominating the charts internationally and plays a major role in global popular culture.

The two movements are actually linked as a new class of black American collectors –­­ who often come from the hip-hop world –­­ are now acquiring the works of their counterparts such as Sean "Daddy" Combs or Swizz Beatz, who owns a collection of 400 works mostly by emerging African American artists like Nina Chanel Abney, Jordan Casteel, Arthur Jafa, Deana Lawson or Kehinde Wiley. He is also known to have introduced contemporary art to the hip-hop world and especially to Beyoncé and Jay-Z. He remains one of the most important "advocates for artists of color" today, as the New York times described him in a recent article published in 2019.

Another type of black collector comes from the business world, people like Raymond and Crystal McGuire, A.C. Hudgins or Pamela Joyner, who toured her collection of African-American abstract artists such as Sam Gilliam, Kevin Beasley, Melvin Edwards or Mark Bradford across the United States a few years ago.

Pamela Joyner between two of the works from her collection

All the ingredients are there to create an exciting era, with the rise of a new promising generation of artists who are likely to become the upcoming stars of the art world. Among them, African American artists will play a leading role. However, it is important to remember that the skyrocketing prices we are currently observing can be the result of speculation, which is harmful to both artists and investors in the medium term. It is our job as an art advisory firm to recognize these patterns and select the most legitimate rising artists to invest in.



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