Next week, on January 18th, Christie’s New York will be hosting its sale of Outsider and Vernacular art. The hundred or so lots available are from self-taught artists or those working in naïve or primitive styles, including James Castle, Nellie Mae Rowe, and Bill Traylor. However, some observers have focused on this sale for a different reason. While a good portion of the lots come from the collections of botanist Siri von Reis and Philadelphia lawyer Jack Bershad, a total of fourteen lots come from the collection of actress Jane Fonda. The Dial family created all the pieces offered from Fonda’s collection, a family of outsider artists based in Alabama that includes Thornton Dial, his half-brother Arthur Dial, and his son Thornton Dial, Jr.
In 1981, Thornton Dial lost his job when the local factory that made Pullman railcars closed, allowing him to pursue art full-time. Only a few years later, he met Atlanta art dealer Bill Arnett, and his work became popular among some collectors. His work is now on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, Atlanta’s High Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and, since 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the 1990s, Jane Fonda has been collecting outsider and vernacular art after Arnett introduced her to Dial’s paintings. In an interview, Fonda stated she was first drawn to Dial’s work because of “the dynamism, the energy, the courage, [and] the rawness”. Since then, Fonda has worked with Arnett to promote the works of Black artists in the southern United States through several projects and initiatives. Dial’s most valuable work sold at auction to date came courtesy of Fonda’s collection when his 1999 painting Trophies (Doll Factory) sold at Christie’s London in October 2019 for £225K w/p (or $277.6K). Two of Dial’s untitled works are expected to make the top three lots at the Christie’s sale, with both expected to sell between $50K and $100K. Whether the specialists considered Fonda’s fame when assigning these estimate ranges is unknown, but I suppose everyone will see once the auction commences next Wednesday afternoon.