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Christie’s NY Outsider & Vernacular Art Sale

January 25, 2023
A piece of leather carved and painted to show the inside of an African-American dance hall. Men dressed in suits with fedoras and women in dresses dance together in a crowd, while a band plays in the front of the room at the very top of the work.

The Black Cat by Winfred Rembert

On Wednesday, January 18th, Christie’s New York held its Outsider & Vernacular art sale, featuring works by self-taught, naïve, and folk artists. I had previously written about how fourteen lots come from the collection of actress Jane Fonda. When the sale came, one of the works owned by Fonda made it to the top lots. But at the very top was not a painting or a sculpture but a piece of leatherwork. The specialists at Christie’s expected The Black Cat by Winfred Rembert to wind up as one of the more valuable lots, assigning it an estimate range of $150K to $200K. It is a 32½-by-24¼-inch piece of carved leather painted with dye, which was Rembert’s preferred medium. Rembert had been involved in the Civil Rights movement. Consequently, he got thrown in jail twice, and a mob nearly lynched him. He served seven years in prison, where he learned leatherworking. He married, moved from his native Georgia to Connecticut, and started creating original works at age 51 in 1986. Despite moving across the country, much of his works recall his younger years spent in the South, including The Black Cat, showing the interior of a dance hall. The carved leather dance hall scene exceeded its estimate range, selling for $240K (or $302.4K w/p). Just behind the Rembert was a small work of graphite on cardboard by Bill Traylor, who is becoming one of the biggest names in outsider art. Traylor had been born into slavery in 1853 and spent most of his life in Alabama. He created the drawing, entitled Goat, Camel, Lion and Figures, in 1939 when he was 86 years old. The picture previously sold at Christie’s New York on January 18, 2019 for a hammer price of $100K, leading experts to give it a $200K to $300K estimate range this time around. Goat, Camel, Lion and Figures hit its low estimate of $200K (or $252K w/p).

A simple pencil drawing of a goat, a camel, a lion, and two human figures completely shaded in against a blank background.

Goat, Camel, Lion and Figures by Bill Traylor

Two works tied for third place on Wednesday, one of which was a work by Thornton Dial from Jane Fonda’s collection. Untitled from 1991 consisted of mixed media on a large 76-by-65-inch canvas, which includes paint, fabric, wire, and epoxy. Sharing the third-place spot was Henry Darger’s Eagle Headed Blengin, a work of graphite, carbon transfer, and watercolor on paper from the collection of Siri von Reis. I found this work most interesting because much of Darger’s work includes subjects from his own fantasy world he developed for an unpublished book called The Story of the Vivian Girls. The subject of this particular piece is a winged creature with a serpent’s tail and an eagle’s head. This subject appears in several works, referring to them as Blengiglomenean Serpents. In his mythology, they act as protectors of his stories’ characters. Both the Dial and Darger works had estimates of $50K to $100K, and ended up with a final hammer price of $85K (or $107.1K w/p).

An abstract painting, mainly of red, blue, and black with various abstract figures throughout

Untitled by Thornton Dial

While a small handful of works more than doubled their original high estimates, only one realized more than triple. Voice of the Third Angel by Minnie Evans consists of oil paint and ink on paperboard. Not only do we know the year of its creation, but its exact date, with Evans inscribing “November 22, 1963” on the reverse. Whether or not the work has any connection with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which occurred on that date, is unknown. Specialists only predicted it to sell for no more than $10K, but it ended up selling for nearly three-and-a-half times that at $34K (or $42.8K w/p).

A fantastic, almost mythical creature with the long, slinking body of a pink serpent, a set of red and yellow wings, and a pink eagle's heat. Some notes are written beneath the illustration.

Eagle Headed Blengin by Henry Darger

Forty-two of the one-hundred-three available lots (41%) sold within their estimate ranges. Additionally, twenty-seven lots (26%) sold above, while thirty-three (32%) sold below. Only a single lot was bought in, giving Christie’s a sell-through rate of 99%. The entire sale was predicted to bring in anywhere between $1.24M and $2.04M, so Christie’s must be rather pleased by the $1.64M total hammer.