Pieces of Historic African American Art Collection to be Auctioned

A year and a half ago, KPCC reported on a Los Angeles private collection of African American art painstakingly put together between the 1950s and 1980s. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports 94 of the most valuable pieces are set to be sold at auction by a New York gallery in a few months.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: For decades, the collection's owner, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, showcased the paintings, sculptures, and drawings at its L.A. corporate offices at Western and Adams.

Nearly a hundred of the collection's most valuable works are no longer there. They now hang on the walls of a Manhattan auction house.

[Sound of car honking horn on street]

Guzman-Lopez: Swann Auction Galleries began dealing in art in 1941. It auctioned its first lot of African American art earlier this year. Nigel Freeman is in charge of Swann's black art department.

He calls the Golden State collection historic. Freeman stands next to the signature piece, a 5'x4' ink drawing of Harriet Tubman made in 1965 by Charles White.

Nigel Freeman: He's one of the most important figurative artists in the United States in the 20th century, not just as an African American. He's a master draughtsman, his figures are very powerful; he really represented the experience of African Americans.

Guzman-Lopez: Nearby, a 1978 Elizabeth Catlett sculpture in mahogany shows a man and a woman embracing; both look wide-eyed at the viewer. Romare Bearden's geometric prints depict black home life and spiritual myths.

For the past 20 years, UCLA African American art historian Paul Von Blum has led tours of the collection. His students, with the company's OK, have helped maintain the artwork. He's saddened by the impending sale.

Paul Von Blum: I think it's a cultural catastrophe, not only to the African American community in Los Angeles, but it's a devastating blow to the growing stature of Los Angeles as a growing center of visual arts.

Guzman-Lopez: There's a growing market for African American art. At its February auction, Swann Galleries broke records for 19 black artists.

Charlotte Sherman remembers the dry years of African American art collecting. She's been associate director of L.A.'s Heritage Gallery. The gallery has nurtured collectors of black art from the Southland, the Midwest, and the East Coast. Comedian Bill Cosby was a frequent client.

The auction of part of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance collection, she says, is the kind of market push that could raise the visibility of the artists and even keep some of the art in Southern California.

Charlotte Sherman: Hopefully, hopefully, many of the pieces will be acquired by museums and public institutions, and if not the collectors will permit those works to circulate.

Guzman-Lopez: Sherman says at least half a dozen area clients have told her they plan on attending the New York auction.

Sherman wishes a museum could have bought the work, a place like the 30-year-old California African American Museum in Exposition Park. Charmaine Jefferson is the museum's executive director. The institution, she says, doesn't have a budget to buy art. The collection's value as a unit, she says, transcends its monetary worth.

Charmaine Jefferson: The collection of Golden State was amassed by an African American company, formed because African Americans couldn't do business with other companies, amassed a collection to show the extraordinary culture of African Americans, so it had a history with it.

Guzman-Lopez: A history, she adds, that'll be unraveled when the auctioneer's gavel slams down.

[Sound of gate slamming, footsteps, and a man saying: "I guess we can sit out here."]

Guzman-Lopez: An 81-year-old man closes the backyard gate at his Baldwin Hills home. He walks to his artist's studio, a garage filled with paintings, brushes, and old photographs. He's William Pajaud. For 30 years he worked as art director at Golden State Mutual, befriending artists, buying art with a modest budget, and sometimes bartering one piece for another.

He's angry but resigned about the collection's sale. The collection's acquired many souls, Pajaud says: his own, the artists', and that of African Americans. Anyone who buys a piece, he says, should honor that.

William Pajaud: Take care or the work and take care of the concept of the people. If, for instance, you are able to get your hands on a piece of that work, any of it, realize that all of it was put together in love, for you and anybody else in the world to see.

Guzman-Lopez: Ninety-four pieces of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company's art collection are scheduled for auction on October 4th.

The company did not return calls seeking comment, and has issued no statement about plans for the remaining 144 art pieces in its collection.