First Auction Of Artists Of The WPA At Swann Establishes Four Records

Select Group Of 38 Vintage Photographs By John Vachon, Ca. 1937-42, Sold For $37,500

February 19, 2021

The artists of the WPA were on display in Swann Galleries’ Feb. 4 auction. The multi-departmental sale was headed by Harold Porcher, the house’s director of Modern and Post-War Art, and featured paintings, prints, photographs, posters and related ephemera by artists whose careers were sustained by the Works Progress Administration and other agencies of the New Deal.
The sale was led by a selection of 38 vintage silver prints spanning 1932 to ’42 by John Vachon, a record for the grouping, at $37,500, going to a collector. Vachon began his work for the Farm Security Administration as an assistant messenger. As his interest in photography grew, he began to make his own photographs and accompanied Arthur Rothstein on one of his assignments; in 1938, Vachon would have his first solo assignment for the FSA in Nebraska. Additional photography highlights include “Dorothea Lange,” “Hoe Culture,” “Alabama Tenant Farmer near Anniston,” silver print, 1936 ($8,125), and “Migrant Mother,” silver print, 1936, printed ca. 1970 ($7,000); “Berenice Abbott with Manhattan Bridge (Looking Up),” a silver contact print, 1936 ($7,000); and “Peter Sekaer with Old Fashioned Kitchen on Virginia Farm,” silver print, 1936, which was acquired by an institution ($5,250).
Norman Lewis, who worked sporadically with several entities of the WPA, had a highlight among the prints on offer, with the 1943 lithograph “Comrades” selling for $9,375. Further lithographs that captured collector attention included Benton Spruance’s “The 30’s-Windshield,” 1939, which brought a record for the print at $6,750; Howard Cook’s “Lower Manhattan,” 1939, at $8,750; and Grant Wood’s “Tree Planting Group,” 1937, at $8,750. Joseph Binder’s 1939 poster for the New York’s World Fair brought $5,250, selling to a collector.
Paintings were popular among collectors, with records being established for Arthur Getz with a 1938 casein and tempera study selling for $10,625, and Abram Tromka with “Third Avenue El,” oil-on-canvas, 1941, at $7,000. Reginald Marsh was present with “The Waterfront, New York,” oil-on-canvas, 1943, which brought $13,750 to the trade, as well as Leon Bibel with “The Flood,” oil-on-canvas, ca. 1939, which realized $5,000.
“How people react in times of hardship is telling of who that person is at their core. When our nation faced the stock market crash, banks locking their doors, and unemployment numbers skyrocketing, many were ready to give in to fear and finger pointing. Franklin Roosevelt was sworn into office in 1932 and managed to calm the fears, and usher in plans to bring our country together and move us forward. The WPA projects, and the New Deal at large, is not just our nation's history but a road map to show us that we can work together and overcome hardships as a nation. We are strongest in unity. Few of the artists of the WPA generation are still with us. Let us not forget them and their neighbors, and how they helped to usher us into the prosperous post-war era,” reflected Porcher, describing the importance of the works featured in the sale.
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