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Fine Arts Collection Leaps in Value

"Landscape With Four Cows," by Edward M. Bannister (1828-1901); charcoal on paper.

The original Henry O. Tanners, Jacob Lawrences, Bruce Nugents, Elizabeth Catletts and other masters housed in Amistad Research Center’s fine arts collection have quadrupled in value, with a new appraisal of $24 million.

The six-month-long appraisal process was the first valuation of the collection in 15 years, according to Executive Director Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D. Kohlert Art Appraisal, a local firm specializing in African-American art, assessed 863 art pieces last year. Owner Sherry Kohlert describes Amistad Research Center’s fine arts holdings as an “incredible, outstanding collection.”

“[I would like the general public to know] how good it is. How ... it spans from the 19th century, 20th century, early 21st century. The scope of it is amazing,” Kohlert says passionately. “The artists who they represent are amazing. They’re all the major artists, and they have some incredible artists that their talents are going to be up-and-coming and will see the future.”

Kohlert and Olidge both note that African-American artists and their marketplace are ascendant. Because of this, Kohlert recommends appraising an art collection of this size every five to 10 years.

“What happens next is building more awareness about the wonderful collection that we have,” says Olidge, who was hired four years ago. “We have many of the 20th century masters and many who directly came out of the Harlem Renaissance. What I’d like to do now is create a preservation plan to help raise money to do some conservation on the works.”

A Closer Look

Edward Mitchell Bannister was a boy in Canada when the mutiny aboard the schooner La Amistad occurred on July 1, 1839. Today, 180 years later, Bannister is one of the oldest masters whose work finds refuge inside Amistad Research Center’s fine arts collection.

“The historical collection is really most significant and very significant. You have a collection here that basically spans the early- to mid-19th century going into - with Edward Bannister and Henry Ossawa Tanner, these were two of the greatest and the earliest black American artists. They kind of put things on the map – then we go into the Harlem Renaissance. The holdings from the Harlem Renaissance are really amazing,” Kohlert says.

Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Ellis Wilson, Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden and William Edouard Scott are a few of the artists from that period here. Amistad also owns 13 Malvin Gray Johnson works; only 60 are known to exist, according to Kohlert. Johnson died at the height of the Harlem Renaissance at 38.

“The birth of Toussaint LÓuverture, May 20, 1743. Both of Toussaint’s parents were slaves,” No. 6 in Jacob Lawrence’s “Toussaint L’Ouverture” series from 1938; a gouache on paper.

Jacob Lawrence is well-represented in the collection. The 41 gouache paintings in his “Toussaint L’Ouverture” series are Amistad’s most valuable holding.

“It’s a very, very rich time there,” Kohlert summates. “Moving along the line, they also have some nice pieces from the era of the Black Power Movement, the late 1960s, early 1970s. I love these works, myself. This is the era that I just really attach myself to.”

Graphics by Louisiana-born Margaret Taylor-Burroughs rest from that time. AfriCOBRA, or the African Commune of Bad Relevant Art, is represented by prominent members Jeff Donaldson and James Phillips.

“From the ’50s and the ’60s, ’70s up, there are abstract works by Sam Middleton and David Driskell. Dr. David Driskell was very instrumental in forming the Amistad Research Center and the Amistad collection,” Kohlert continues. “He was a brilliant poet. I think the Amistad collection might not be the Amistad collection if it weren’t for Dr. David Driskell. He played a really important role.”

Abstracts by Driskell and linocuts and a bronze by Catlett propel the collection’s worth. In addition, a nice collection of local and regional artists help round out the assemblage.

“I don’t want to leave anybody out,” Kohlert says. Nevertheless, Jeffrey Cook, Kimberly Dummons, Ron Bechet, Claude Clark, Claire Foster-Burnett, Jack Jordan, Martin Payton, Steve Prince, John T. Scott and Louise Mouton Johnson are members of the set.

Selma Burke's "Charlotte Hawkins Brown," a bronze of the Wellesley-educated author, educator and founder of Palmer Memorial Institute, a day and boarding school for Afican-Americans in North Carolina.

Amistad holds the original Ellis Wilson painting “Funeral Procession,” which was popularized in the 1980s by “The Cosby Show.” It is among the most valuable of Amistad’s holdings.

Future Gaze

Olidge, who previously served as deputy director at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, had an inkling of the collection’s value, so commissioned the appraisal, in part, to get back on track administratively.

“We went literally from $6 million to $24 million. That is an impressive number,” Olidge says. “We want to ensure that we can preserve the artwork, the collection. We want to be a good steward, and we also want to exhibit the works. We want to make sure that people can actually see them. I think much is given for people to experience. So our goal is to do this work so we can do more activities with the work.”

Kohlert praises Olidge as visionary and her “incredible” staff of knowledgeable, hard workers. She points out that while the collection is really well catalogued and in really good shape, she would prefer to see a more sophisticated storage system in place at Amistad Research Center for its art.

"Gold-Weights (Only The Strong Arrived)" is a 1996 mixed media by Claire Foster-Burnett.

“I would hope that as years go by and funding comes in, this collection will be housed in a safer, better storage system than they have right now. It’s such an incredible collection. I would like one day for it to be housed somewhere where people could come and actually be able to see these pieces on the wall with proper lighting,” Kohlert says.

“I really hope one day that Amistad will have a permanent location where people can see these things correctly archived and with correct climate control. A collection like this is deserving and worthy of [that] type of housing, whether in a free-standing building or part of a larger institution. It requires a lot of space,” she continues.

A home equivalent in size to the New Orleans Museum of Art or Ogden Museum of Southern Art is what Amistad’s artwork requires, Kohlert says.

“This collection is incredibly powerful. It’s just a really good collection. That would be my dream for this collection,” Kohlert says.

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