Golden State Mutual Lifes Art Fetches $1.5 Million at Auction

A controversial auction of art owned by Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. in South Los Angeles set record prices at Swann Auction Galleries in New York, according to Nigel Freeman, head of Swann’s African American art department.

The auction Thursday had infuriated local art historians who wanted the collection to remain in Southern California. Samelia Lewis, an art historian and founder of the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, called it “one of the finest collections in the West in terms of African American culture and art.” Lewis, 81, told The Times, “It’s going to be a great loss to California if it leaves, because we need that information.”

Of the 94 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings on offer, 88 were sold for a total of $1,541,470, Freeman said Friday.

Charles White’s 1965 ink drawing “General Moses (Harriet Tubman)” — estimated to fetch $200,000 to $250,000 — sold for $360,000, “a major record for a Charles White,” Freeman said.

Hughie Lee-Smith’s “Slum Song,” a 1944 oil painting estimated to bring $30,000 to $50,000, sold for $216,000. “That was definitely the one thing that was the surprise of the sale,” Freeman said. “The previous record auction for one of his works was about $40,000.

“Many of the California artists from the collection who were coming to auction for the first time did very well too,” he added.

That list included John Biggers, whose “Market Women, Ghana,” an oil from about 1960, set an artist’s record of $96,000.

Freeman said that he could not reveal the names of any buyers but that they ranged “from major institutions and museums, major collectors and dealers, to first-time buyers across the U.S. It was a great mix. That’s reflected in the prices.”