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Kai Ryssdal: The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company opened up shop here in Los Angeles in 1925. It built a booming business selling insurance to African Americans. It also built one of the most important collections of African American art in the country. Things have been slow for Golden State for a while now, so it's hoping to raise money by selling off part of the collection. In straight dollar terms it's a small sale for an art world used to $50 million Picassos, but it could have an impact much larger than its hammer price. From KPCC, Adolfo Guzman Lopez reports.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: For decades, Golden State Mutual proudly showcased its collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures at its Los Angeles corporate offices.
Now the collection's most-valuable works hang on the walls of Swann Auction Galleries in Manhattan. Nigel Freeman will be overseeing the auction. He stands next to Golden State's signature piece, a 5-foot-by-4-foot ink drawing of Harriet Tubman made in 1965 by Charles White.
Nigel Freeman: He's really one of the best figurative artists in the United States in the 20th century. I mean, not just as an African American. He's a master draftsman, and his figures are very powerful. He really represented the experience of African Americans.
This drawing is expected to sell for $250,000 or more. Freeman says Charles White, like many other accomplished black artists, aren't commanding the prices they should be in today's booming art market. Those artists include sculptor Elizabeth Catlett and painter Jacob Lawrence. They're both in the upcoming auction.
Longtime Los Angeles art dealer Charlotte Sherman says this auction should help raise the profile and the value of African American art.
Charlotte Sherman: Hopefully, hopefully, many of the pieces will be acquired by museums and public institutions, and if not, the collectors will permit those works to circulate.
Sherman's gallery has sold art by black artists to comedian Bill Cosby and actor Angela Basset, among others. She says there's a buzz building around the upcoming auction and many of her clients have told her they plan on seeing the gavel come down at the New York auction.
But Paul Von Blum, a historian of African American art at UCLA, says its a shame to break up Golden State's collection. He says the collection tells the story of African Americans and that cultural value is more important than the auction price of the individual works.
Paul Von Blum: To have them dispersed not only deprives my students and community groups from seeing that, but it really says that economic priorities trump any kind of cultural vitality.
Eighty-one-year-old William Pajaud worked as Golden State Mutual's art director for 30 years. He put the extraordinary collection together by befriending artists, and sometimes bartering one piece for another. Pajaud says he hates to see the works separated, and hopes buyers will honor the spirit of the collection.
William Pajaud: Take care of the work and take care of the concept of the people. If, for instance, you are able to get your hands on a piece of that work. Any of it, realize that all of it was put together in love, for you and anybody else in the world to see.
Swann Auction Galleries says the collection's expected to fetch about $2 million.
In Los Angeles, I'm Adolfo Guzman Lopez for Marketplace.
"Market Women, Ghana," oil on canvas, by John Biggers, circa 1960.
"General Moses (Harriet Tubman)," Chinese ink on two joined sheets of illustration board, by Charles White, 1965.
"Embrazo" (The Embrace), mahogany sculpture, by Elizabeth Catlett, 1978.