Market Snapshot: Elizabeth Catlett

The market for her politically charged works is hot.

Elizabeth Catlett, Black Girl, 2004


Elizabeth Catlett, Black Girl, 2004

Elizabeth Catlett, Black Girl (2004)

Elizabeth Catlett
American, 1915–2012
Sragow Gallery

The work of Elizabeth Catlett—a sculptor and printmaker best known for her heroic depictions of African-American women in wood, terracotta, and marble—is seeing belated validation in the market.

“Both her market and the level of recognition has changed significantly,” Nigel Freeman, director of the African American Fine Art Department at Swann Auction Galleries, told artnet News. Swann has been instrumental in raising Catlett’s profile since it became the first auction house to dedicate a special department to African American art in 2006. “Back in 2007,” explains Freeman, “we were the first major auction house to sell a Catlett sculpture. Since then, we have set record prices at auction for both her sculpture and prints, and sold over a hundred artworks.”

Swann’s 2009 sale of Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968)—a sinuous female figure carved in red cedar with her fist raised in an empowering gesture—broke Catlett’s auction record. The sculpture, which sold for $288,000, including buyer’s premium, has subsequently appeared in two museum exhibitions: “Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists,” at the Bronx Museum of Art in 2011, and the Brooklyn Museum’s “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” in May 2014.

More recently, Catlett’s terracotta sculpture Woman Fixing Her Hair sold at Sotheby’s New York this April for $149,000 with buyer’s premium, nearly double the $80,000 high estimate. Catlett’s auction prices are matched—if not surpassed—by their retail value. “I feel that the Catlett retail market is more accurate than the auction market,” American art dealer Ellen Sragow explained via email: “Auction houses vary on their estimates, often making them too low. But if it is an image in demand, the bidding will usually reach the proper level. I am often sitting next to my clients at auction and we are bidding against each other! In order for me to purchase for resale, I have to add the 25 percent auction house fee to the hammer price and hope there is still room for me to make a profit!”

Though best known as a sculptor, Catlett was a prolific printmaker, a talent that is also seeing belated recognition. “Her print market has also experienced a tremendous shift,” explained Freeman, “The color linoleum print Sharecropper is by far her best-known image, and it has doubled in price—from an $18,000 hammer price (before buyer’s premium) in 2008, to $36,000 hammer for an impression last year.” More modest collectors can still pick up a linoleum print at auction for under $3,000.

Both commentators believe that Catlett’s market has yet to plateau. “I expect her work to continue to appreciate as her stature as an artist grows, both here in the US and internationally,” said Freeman. Sragow is equally optimistic: “Her market will only go up,” she said, “She is one of the leading African American artists of her generation.”

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