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A New Sale Will Test the Auction Market for Works by Black Artists

Bill Royall was a Richmond, Va.-based businessman who sold his direct-marketing firm, Royall & Co., for $850 million in 2014.

Well before then, though, he and his wife Pam had spent years buying art, donating art, and funding artistic institutions in Richmond.

In 2019, Bill was diagnosed with ALS; he died in June of this year.

“I knew my husband only had a certain amount of time to live, and we had an opportunity to be thoughtful,” Royall says. “Bill wanted to leave me knowing he had played a part in helping make some important decisions.”

One of those decisions involved what to do with all of their art.

For years, the couple had supported young artists by buying their work and hanging paintings alongside established artists in their private gallery space, Try-me, in Richmond.

“We loved female artists that were overlooked, we loved African American artists that were potentially overlooked, and we loved living artists, with whom we could have a relationship,” Royall says. “I remember [hearing] half a dozen artists say: ‘It’s amazing to me to see my work hanging in the same space as Sean Scully. Who would have imagined?’”

Even after donating more than 100 works to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts over the course of a decade, the Royalls had a private collection of hundreds of pieces of art by the end of Bill’s life. These included works by current art world stars Rashid Johnson, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Teresita Fernández, and Adam Pendleton.

Faced with the prospect of paring the collection after Bill’s death, the couple weighed selling some work privately through dealers, then decided it would be best to sell a small but desirable portion of their collection at auction.

The reasoning, Royall says, is that the exposure from potentially record-breaking results could actually benefit the artists who made the work. “Everybody that is kind of schooled in this business looks at auction records,” she says. “I think we’ve got a lot of artists in our collection that are really exceptional, but because [there are few works that go to auction], they’re undervalued.” 

Now, in keeping with plans the couple made, at least 30 pieces from the collection are coming to auction in December at Phillips in New York at a time when prices for art by Black artists have gone through the roof.

In 2018, Kerry James Marshall’s 1997 painting Past Times sold for $21.1 million over a high estimate of $12 million at Sotheby’s New York. Works by Mark Bradford regularly sell publicly for millions of dollars ; his 2007 painting Ghost Money sold earlier this month at Christie’s New York for just under $7 million. And in September, Sotheby’s held a “Hip Hop” auction filled with a combination of memorabilia and art, where 10 artists records were set; the auction totaled more than $2 million.

In this context, the sale of the Royall’s art “will be one of the most exciting, and highest concentration of works by a group of African American artists since this [surge in] market interest in them,” says Robert Manley, the deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips.

“That is one thing that does excite us—purely from a market point of view—is to bring to market exactly what people are looking for.”

Auction Highlights

The Royall’s art will be spread across Phillips evening sale on Dec. 7 and its day sale on Dec. 8.

Leading the collection is Salina/Star, a 60-inch high, full-length portrait by Barkley Hendricks from 1980, estimated from $800,000 to $1.2 million. This comes after the sale of a slightly larger portrait by Hendricks from the same year, which sold at Sotheby’s New York in October for $1.47 million, above a high estimate of $1 million. (Estimates are for hammer prices; totals include the buyer’s premium.)

The evening sale will also include I’ve Been Good to Me, a 2013 painting by Mickalene Thomas, estimated from $200,000 to $300,000. 

Thomas, who at age 49 counts as mid-career, has a comparatively recent presence on the secondary market. As recently as 2018, one of her paintings had a high estimate of $40,000 and failed to find a bidder at Sotheby’s New York.

But in the last two years, her works’ presence at auction has exploded. Last May, her painting Just a Whisper Away sold for $495,000 at Christie’s New York, over a high estimate of $100,000; a few months later, her 2013 painting Naomi Looking Forward sold for $698,000, over a high estimate of $246,000, at Sotheby’s London.

“In general, auctions divide their evening and their day auctions by value,” says Manley.

“Every evening sale, we have a small number of artists that we think are really the future, and these are works for which we think there’s a huge amount of demand.” For that reason, he continues, “we think the moment is right to put [Thomas’s] work in an evening sale.”

Similarly, the Phillips evening sale will include a painting by Amy Sherald, who was instantly catapulted to global fame after painting Michelle Obama’s portrait. Now represented by the powerful gallery Hauser & Wirth, there’s a waiting list for Sherald’s paintings. Just one of her artworks has ever come to auction: A Innocent You, Innocent Me, a painting, sold last year for $350,000, above a high estimate of $120,000, at Christie’s New York. 

The Sherald work owned by the Royalls depicts two women in swimsuits, set against a blue background.

Titled The Bathers, it was created in 2015 and purchased from the Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville, Va. “Bill and I wanted, for the artists as much as anything, for [their work] to be available,” Royall says.

“Amy Sherald is an example of that fact. We had two of her paintings when people were waiting for years for her to produce a painting [that they could purchase]—and that’s if they’re fortunate enough to be offered one.”

The work carries an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000, which Manley acknowledges is “definitely attractively estimated.” Lower estimates, he explains, “tend to create higher prices, not lower prices.”

The Potency of Imagery

There are other works by artists young (Alex Gardner) and old (Bill Traylor, who was born in slavery and died in 1949), along with works by mid-career artists, including Kehinde Wiley, Henry Taylor, and Titus Kaphar.

“We’re both marketers,” Royall says of herself and her late husband. “We understand communication and the potency of imagery.”

Contemporary art, she continues, reflects “what people are thinking and doing and prioritizing in the moment, and I think it’s just such an exciting time to have more people think about the role that art—and artists—play in all of this.”

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