The Historic Artworks That Once Adorned the Offices of ‘Jet’ and ‘Ebony’ Are Heading to Auction This Month

Works by Carrie Mae Weems and Henry Ossawa Tanner will be included in the sale at Swann Galleries.

A feature in the September 1972 edition of Ebony Magazine debuting the Johnson Publishing Company's new headquarters. Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

Last year, Johnson Publishing, the parent company behind Ebony and Jet magazines, filed for liquidation, ending the historic enterprise’s 77-year run. By July, a quartet of foundations teamed up at the 11th hour to purchase the company’s historic archives of images, video, and audio recordings. 

But the fate of the artwork that adorned the company’s famous headquarters in downtown Chicago—including pieces by Carrie Mae Weems, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Kenneth Victor Young—remained less certain.

Now, those works are set to be sold. On January 30, Swann Galleries in New York will host a sale dedicated to the painting, sculptures, etchings, and other objects by 75 African American artists featured in Johnson’s offices. A free-and-public exhibition held five days prior to the sale will mark the first time these works will have been shown outside of the company.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, <i>Moonrise by Kasbah</i> (1912). Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Moonrise by Kasbah (1912). Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

“The collection displays the many directions that fine art and the country itself were heading in 1971—without a singular point of view and in seemingly opposite directions,” says Nigel Freeman, director of African-American Fine Art for Swann, in the introduction to the sale’s catalogue. “But this variety perfectly reflects the important ideals of the Johnson Publishing company—chronicling the breadth and depth of African American life to a national audience.”

The Johnson Publishing Company was founded with its flagship publication Ebony in 1942 by John Johnson. By the early ’70s, with Jet and other outfits also under its umbrella, the business was at the height of its powers. Its corporate offices at 820 South Michigan Avenue in the Windy City became a local landmark upon opening in 1971. The 11-story building was the first in Chicago’s loop to be designed and owned by African Americans, and the lush interior complimented the magazine’s role as a lodestar for black visual culture.

Carrie Mae Weems, <i>Untitled</i> (1996-97), detail). Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (1996-97), detail). Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

On the walls hung a number of notable works that, later this month, will make their way to New York for the auction: an installation of seven framed photographs with etched glass by Carrie Mae Weems (estimated to go for $100,000 to $150,000 at Swann’s sale); a crepuscular canvas from 1912 by Henry Ossawa Tanner ($150,000 to $250,000); bronze busts by Richmond Barthé and Elizabeth Catlett (both estimated at $50,000 to $75,000); and many others.

Swann’s sale will feature 87 lots in total, none of which will carry a guarantee. Altogether the collection is valued at $1.2 million. Profits from the sale will go toward secured claims against Johnson Publishing. Former CEO Desiree Rogers, who previously loaned $2.7 million to the company, will get the first cut, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Kenneth Victor Young, <i>Upper Egypt</i> (1971). Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

Kenneth Victor Young, Upper Egypt (1971). Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

African-American Art from the Johnson Publishing Company will take place Thursday, January 30, 2020, at Swann Galleries in New York. 

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