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Historians angered by auction of black art

Insurance company sends the collection to New York to be sold, but some wanted it to stay in an L.A. museum.

August 17, 2007|Lindsay Pollock | Bloomberg News

A collection of black art owned by Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Los Angeles has been carted off to be auctioned in New York, infuriating local art historians who want it to remain in California.

Golden State plans to sell 94 artworks Oct. 4 at Swann Galleries. The paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings are expected to sell for as much as $1.5 million.

The company's 1948 Moderne office building in South-Central Los Angeles, designed by famed black architect Paul Williams, had been hung with a dazzling array of some of the greatest names in African American art, including Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. It was a bright spot for a community beleaguered by crime and poverty.

"It's one of the finest collections in the West in terms of African American culture and art. It's like a museum," said Samella Lewis, 81, an art historian and founder of the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. "It's going be a great loss to California if it leaves because we need that information."

Golden State, founded in 1925 to sell insurance to blacks in response to discriminatory practices in the industry, has served for decades as a cultural beacon to schoolchildren, black art scholars and even the occasional gang member.

Paul von Blum, a senior lecturer in African American studies at UCLA, has led tours of the collection for decades.

"For the multicultural community in Los Angeles, it's a cultural loss to the city," Von Blum said. "I would like to see these works go into a museum in Southern California."

Golden State is taking advantage of rising prices in a long-overlooked field. Swann Galleries held the first-ever auction dedicated solely to black artworks in February. The sale brought in $2.3 million, setting 17 artist records and attracting collectors from New Orleans to Paris.

"Prices are rising for very high-quality works by historic and significant figures," said Manhattan dealer Michael Rosenfeld, who sells high-end black art.

"Obviously, it's a financial decision," said Nigel Freeman, head of Swann's African American art department. "There are people who will be disappointed it's being broken up and leaving California. But the decision to sell it has been made, and Swann will make the most of the opportunity."

Golden State began collecting black art in 1965 at the suggestion of artist William Pajaud, an art director at the company who retired in 1987.

Pajaud bought and eventually filled the hallways, private offices, lobby and cubicles with artworks on a $5,000 annual budget. Harlem Renaissance stars Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff were commissioned to create murals in the lobby, which are not part of the auction. When Pajaud started buying, opportunities for black artists were few.

"We literally had no place to show our work," said Pajaud, 81. "I thought about everything that went into that collection as a legacy for the black people."

The sale reflects Pajaud's taste and also his desire to help California artists. There are major works by some of the most celebrated black artists, including a large ink drawing of a stern, barefoot Harriet Tubman by Charles White, expected to sell for as much as $250,000.

A set of screen prints by Lawrence from his 1977 series "A Legend of John Brown," depicting the life of the abolitionist, is estimated to raise up to $160,000. A sensuous, angular-carved mahogany couple by Elizabeth Catlett from 1978 is expected to fetch as much as $250,000. There are lesser-known names as well, including Beulah Woodward, Varnette Honeywood and John Riddle, who have no auction history.

At least one museum might have been interested in keeping the artworks together.

"If we had had an opportunity to talk with Golden State, we might very well have been able to find some donors and been able to purchase the collection," said Charmaine Jefferson, executive director of the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Selling the collection "is not the same thing as passing a Monet around."

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