Black Art Is Buried Treasure

In an overheated market, works by African American painters are a bargain -- for now

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For art collector John Axelrod, the epiphany came a dozen years ago at a New York gallery show of works by African Americans. The Boston lawyer, now retired, was stunned. "My feeling was, these are not African American artists, these are great artists from the country and period I collect in, and I don't know about them." Today about 90 of the 320 pieces he owns are by African Americans.

That, in a nutshell, is what many black collectors think will happen as more white collectors become familiar with the paintings, collages, sculptures, and photographs of African Americans. Wealthy African Americans are usually heavy buyers at the National Black Fine Art Show (Feb. 2-5 at the Puck Building in Manhattan), in part because they want to support work they believe doesn't get enough attention. But in an art market where prices seem badly inflated, collectors have economic reasons to be buying, too. "There isn't much else to collect that hasn't been overexploited," says David Driskell, the art professor emeritus at the University of Maryland who helped Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, amass their collection. Predicts Atlanta art dealer Jerry Thomas Jr.: "In the next 10 years we're going to see a very significant appreciation in the price of African American work."


There are already long waiting lists of collectors eager to pay a fortune for works by Chicago's Kerry James Marshall, New-York-based Kara Walker, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988 at the age of 27. But Driskell contends that prices still lag badly for African American masters such as Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), Romare Bearden (1914-88), Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), and Elizabeth Catlett, 90, because they remain under-represented in mainstream galleries and museums. Indeed, even after a major Bearden retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art in 2003, the artist's pioneering collages still can be purchased for well under $100,000. "Bearden is the most undervalued artist in America right now," says Miami collector Donald Rubell.

Prices for those artists' works seem likely to rise. E.T. Williams, a retired banker and real estate investor who is on the board of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, says "a major catch-up" is under way as mainstream museums give African American artists more wall space and new museums such as San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora (which just opened in December) are built. That's already giving a boost to older artists, such as abstract painter Sam Gilliam, 72, the subject of a retrospective organized by Washington's Corcoran Gallery that will be moving on to museums in Louisville, Savannah, Ga., and Houston. The Art Institute of Chicago is running a major Catlett show through Apr. 23.


Meanwhile, a new generation of collectors is scouting talent. Professional basketball star Grant Hill, 33, who has built a museum-quality collection of black old masters (you can see it at, plans to focus on younger living artists after he retires. Two of his friends, retired NBA player Elliot Perry, 36, and Darrell Walker, 44, an assistant coach with the New Orleans Hornets, are already purchasing pieces from emerging mixed-media artists such as Whitfield Lovell, 46, and Radcliffe Bailey, 37.

These collectors haunt galleries such as D.C. Moore, Michael Rosenfeld, and Bill Hodges in New York and G.R. N'Namdi (which has locations in Detroit and Chicago as well as New York). They also track shows by hip curators at institutions such as the Studio Museum in Harlem and get to know the artists. "We know that one day we'll go down in history as collectors," Walker says. It may pay to follow their lead.

By Thane Peterson

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