Image credit: Fredrik Nilsen
Sam Gilliam (b. 1933, d. 2022) was a renowned abstract painter whose work is associated with the Washington Color School and abstract expressionism. He is best known for his Drape paintings, large painted canvases resembling colorful drapery that are suspended from walls or ceilings without the typical wooden supports. Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi but grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. He received formal art training at the University of Louisville, where he received both a B.A. and M.F.A. Gilliam moved to Washington, DC where his style changed from figurative to abstract after interacting with Washington Color School artists like Kenneth Noland and Thomas Downing. He spent the rest of his life based in the nation’s capital. Gilliam was an inspiration to future generations of abstract artists. Rashid Johnson credits Gilliam for helping “define my relationship to race.” Gilliam’s work is included in over fifty permanent collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern and the Art Institute of Chicago. Sam Gilliam lost a battle with failing kidneys last year. He was 88 years old.
Double Merge (1968) at Dia:Beacon
Image credit: Ben Davis
When an artist passes away, it’s often thought that their work appreciates since they can create no more and perhaps they were undervalued when alive. Is this true? What happens to an artist’s market after he or she passes away? I was prompted to take a look at Gilliam's market to see how it has fared in the time since his passing.
I. NO BOOM
Gilliam passed away on June 25, 2022. After his passing, one might expect a flood of works to come to market from sellers seeking to capitalize. With Gilliam’s market, there was no such flood. In total, 29 paintings were sold in 2022, much less than his previous high of 49 paintings set in 2018. And fewer works sold at auction in the second half of 2022, after his death (10), than did in the first half of 2022 before his death (19).
While fewer works were auctioned, the price of works sold trended upward in the second half of 2022. However, in the first quarter of 2023, the prices came back down. Why was there no flood of works into Gilliam’s auction market after his death, and why did the price of his work go back down in the first quarter of 2023?
II. A LATE RESURGENCE
"April", 1969 A beveled edge work from Gilliam's exhibition The Music of Color (1967-73) at the Kunstmuseum Basel
Image credit: Julian Salinas
One of the reasons why more works didn’t flood into the market after Gilliam’s death is that many works flooded the market in 2018 and 2019, as Gilliam enjoyed a late resurgence. The surge coincided with Gilliam’s first major European museum exhibition, which took place at the Kunstmuseum Basel (Switzerland) and his subsequent showing at the Art Basel art fair. In 2018, Gilliam’s market set records for number of paintings sold at auction (49) and price for a piece ($1.8M). Importantly, in 2018, Gilliam’s work consistently sold for more than estimates, especially works over $100K. That led to continued demand for his work carrying into 2019.
III. RE-SET ESTIMATES
In 2019, 39 Gilliam paintings were sold at auction. However, many pieces sold for less than their estimates, particularly at the high end of the market. The fact that pieces sold for less than estimate was driven in part by higher estimates in 2019 vs. 2018. The average price per sq inch according to estimates went from 41.7 in 2018 to 62.3 in 2019, an increase of 50% in just one year. This new estimate level was even greater than the average price per sq inch according to actual prices from 2018 (57.3). This aggressive increase in estimates may have contributed to the cooling of Gilliam’s market.
The difference between 2018 and 2019 of Gilliam’s sale prices relative to estimates was even more pronounced in the high end of the market, for works selling for more than $50K. 2022 saw a similar trend with works at the high-end undershooting estimates. The fact that works in the high-end segment didn’t sell above estimates seems to have discouraged more high priced works coming to auction in early 2023 and may have even impacted the price of works at lower price points.
It is commonly believed that the value of an artist’s work appreciates after they die, resulting in more works being sold at higher prices. The case of Sam Gilliam shows that this is not always the case. Sometimes artists have their moment(s) before they die, or in the case of Ernie Barnes well after. Gilliam’s case also shows how an artist’s market can cool when sale prices are below estimates, particularly at the high end of the market. This illustrates how important estimates are in shaping an artist’s market performance.
MORE ON SAM GILLIAM
Watch a short clip about The Music of Color, Gilliam's 2018 solo exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel:
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