Outsider Art: an uninhibited market


Original works ranging from under $200 to nearly $700,000… all in one sale? That’s what you get in a dedicated Outsider Art sale. And, a bit like the works themselves, this market is heterogeneous both in terms of style and and price… and therefore completely uninhibited.

The Art Brut is no longer terra incognita for either the art world (galleries, museums etc.) or the art market. The “misfits” of art now have their exhibitions, their fairs, their collectors and their dedicated sales. On January 19, Christie’s organised a sale to coincide with the New York Outsider Art Fair (18-21 January 2018): a dispersion of the Marjorie and Harvey Freed collection. Of the 90 lots in the sale, several were priced under $1,000 (works by Shields Landon Jones, Leroy Almon, Henry Speller Mike Rodriguez, Jake McCord, among others) and several set new records (works by Aloise Corbaz, Lee Godie and William Dawson, among others) demonstrating the dynamism of this market.

Under $5,000

With more than 47 lots fetching under $5,000 (including 17 under $1,000), the Christie’s sale of January 19 reminds us that Outsider Art is not a “star” market, but rather an area for discovery accessible to all collectors, including those with modest budgets.

Mose TOLLIVER (c.1920-2006)

The African-American painter Mose Tolliver is one of the most affordable of the genre. Most of his works change hands for only a few hundred dollars, although his work has been acquired by several major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the American Folk Art Museum and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington. Last January 19, Christie’s sold his Pink-Faced Man panel painting for $1,500, the fourth best-ever auction result for this highly affordable artist.

Lee GODIE (1908-1994)

Lee Godie is probably the only Outsider artist known to have frequented the mainstream art world as well. She wanted to be part of it, and she succeeded. Well known in Outsider circles, honoured with a retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1993, Lee Godie remains an affordable artist since the $5,000 paid for her two-sided drawing Three Hands on a Piano / Ellyn in Profile at the Christie’s sale represents her best-ever auction result.

William R. DAWSON (1901-1990)

Several Dawson sculptures were offered at the Christie’s sale, including one depicting a man wearing a striped sweater (Man with a Striped Sweater) which fetched $3,500. However, the sale also generated a new record for the artist when his sculpted and painted cowboy fetched $9,000 $11,250 including fees.

Over $100,000

If he were alive today, Jean Dubuffet would possibly be unimpressed by the market’s appropriation of Art Brut. However, Outsider Art remains a vital counterpoint to the mainstream and fashion-oriented art world and this is one of the reasons for its phenomenal success. It injects an energy that is often lacking in Contemporary art by reconnecting with emotions, biography and individual spiritual and psychological development. The market for Outsider Art has been growing steadily for fifteen years, since the opening of the Outsider Art Fair in New York in 1993. Today, collectors are very keen to acquire certain relatively rare works in the Art Brut genre, including drawings representing Henry Darger’s incredible saga.

 Henry J. DARGER (1892-1973)

A large double-sided drawing by the artist (two-metres wide) fetched three times its low estimate reaching $672,500. Titled 93 At Jennie Richee, are chaced for long distance by Glandelinians with blood hounds. / 95 At Jennie Richee, Escape down Aronburgs Run River through circle section in storm, the work fetched Henry Darger’s second best-ever auction result on 19 January. His record remains the result Christie’s generated in Paris on 2 December 2014 for an untitled two-sided composition measuring 3.3 meters long, which tripled its estimate to a final price of nearly $750,000 (including fees). Recall that when Darger died his landlord discovered a two-thousand page autobiography and a literary work of more than fifteen thousand pages titled In the Realms of the Unreal. The works were accompanied by several hundred large-format watercolors, featuring his famous hermaphroditic Vivian Girls. Both naive and terrifying at the same time, his creations borrowed from early 20th century comics and children’s literature. It reveals an obsessive fantasy oscillating between the refinement of an exquisite fairy tale and the horrors of extreme cruelty.

Bill TRAYLOR (1854-1947)

Bill Traylor is also a favorite with Outsider collectors. At the Christie’s sale, a 1939 drawing titled Drinking Man with Dog fetched $137,000 against an estimate of $30,000 – 50,000. Marjorie and Harvey Freed owned several works by Bill Traylor, each acquired several years ago for less than a $1,000 from Carl Hammer’s specialist Outsider Art gallery in Chicago. The 1,200 drawings on cardboard that the artist is known to have created were completed in just a few years, as Bill Traylor only started drawing in 1939… at the age of 75.

William EDMONDSON (1874-1951)

William Edmondson was the first African-American artist exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (1937). He is also one of the most expensive Outsider artists, reaching $785,000 in January 2016 with a stone sculpture measuring just 43cm (Boxer, Christie’s, New York). Two of his sculptures fetched over the $100,000 line at the January 19 sale.

Aloise CORBAZ (1886-1964)

Her double-sided drawing Aristoloches sold well above its estimated range on January 19, with the final price of $137,500 setting a new auction record for the artist. The quality of the provenance certainly upped the ante, as Aristoloches had belonged to André Breton, one of her first admirers, along with Jean Dubuffet.

This coming 30 January 2018, Outsider collectors will be turning their attention to Paris where Tajan is organizing a sale entitled Art Brut, Art Naïf et Neuve Invention. The sale includes no less than 183 lots with works by André Bauchant alongside works by Scottie Wilson, Louis Soutter Aloys Zotl, Madge Gill and Aloise Corbaz… So for the Outsider/Art Brut/Naïf market, the year has got off to a dynamic start on both sides of the Atlantic.