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Under the Gavel: LGBTQ+ Art Auction at Swann Galleries

This month, a major auction spanning 19th and 20th century LGBTQ+ history in New York.

By Arts & Culture

Lot #2: Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Program From The Original Production Of “The Importance Of Being Earnest” At St. James’s Theatre. Via Swann Auction galleries.

People who have LGBTQ+ memorabilia, ephemera, artwork, and print material from centuries ago through the 1990s may be very surprised that these collections are sought out by collectors. LGBTQ+ activists and subculture participants may be shocked that things they held onto, from bar fliers to movement leaflets, erotica and even early pornography will yield large dollar bids at auction.

This August, Swann Auction Galleries will present the LGBTQ+ ART, MATERIAL CULTURE & HISTORY Auction. The catalog is extensive and breathtaking. It could easily be the textbook for a college art history course. 

Going Once, Going Twice...
The lots are a who’s who of 19th and 20th century LGBTQ+ people including… Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Walt Whitman, William Somerset Maugham, Gerda Wegener, Jean Cocteau, Moss Hart, Feral Benga, Pavel Tchelitchew, Carl Van Vechten and George Platt Lynes, W.H. Auden, PaJaMa (Paul Cadmus, Jared French, Margaret French), Avel de Knight, Duncan Grant, George Quaintance, Steve Masters, Darrel Milsap, Leonore Fini, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Farley Granger, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Robert Bliss, Sewell Sillman, Richard Bernstein, The Beatles, Randy Green, Loomis Dean/Harold Stevenson, David Hockney, Joe Eula, Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Halston, Jack Smith, Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar, Peter Berlin, Harvey Redding, Harmony Hammond, Don Bachardy, Bob Ziering, Lowell Nesbitt, Michael A. Cummings, James Snodgrass, Suzanne Poli, Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera, Terrence McNally, Lyle Ashton Harris, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Mark Morrisoe, David Wojnarowicz, Milton Glazer, Tony Kushner, Jean-Louis Cornalba, Hal George, Atilla Richard Lukacs, David Ligare, Howard Cruse, Ross Bleckner, George Tooker, Steven Arnold, Jack Pierson, Mattias Herrmann, John Patrick Dugdale, Laura Aguilar, Isaac Julien, Anderson and Low, Deni Ponty, Wes Hempel, Robert Loughlin, Robert W. Richards, David Hilliard, David McDermott, Nan Goldin, Rashadd Newsome, Raymundo Valdez, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

The diversity is incredible. There is rare album (Lot 20) of more than 150 men cross-dressing in the 1930s. In another lot, we see a drag queen dancing with a man at a drag ball in a photo taken by Diane Arbus. In yet another lot transgender icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are marching for NYC Gay Pride.

Contrast the lots of lesbian pulp fiction, which tended to be geared to heterosexual men, with lesbian studies books such as “Lesbian/Woman” by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin and “Sappho Was A Right On Woman” by Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love.

The erotic art of Tom of Finland appeared concurrently with 1950s male physique magazines that begin the exploration of male erotica as a statement of art and sexuality; by the 1970s, this morphed into the macho gay male culture promoted by Colt Studios, Target Studios and Jim French. Boyd McDonald published “Straight to Hell: The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts,” a magazine compilation of true homosexual sex stories. Erotic Filmmaker and activist Pat Rocco published “Bizarre Productions Catalog of Hollywood Models & Feature Films,” a journal that advertised and reviewed gay erotic films.

Lot #54: Various Authors- Various Artists. Lesbian Pulp Fiction. Via Swann Auction Galleries.

The Gay Rights section of the auction begins in the early to mid ’60s, with gay alternative newspapers printed on white stock or newsprint such as Cruise News & World Report and Citizens News. Early Gay Rights fliers were often printed by mimeograph or, if there was a budget (rare), offset printed. There are 13 fliers put out in the weeks after Stonewall by the Mattachine Society. There is a beautiful saffron colored hand illustrated flier from the Gay Anarchist Survival Project (GASP). A news clipping of “3 Cops Hurt As Bar Raid Riles Crowd” at the start of Stonewall is presented as ephemera. A wonderful pink and lavender greeting card features a purple grenade for The Third World Gay Revolution that spun off from Gay Liberation Front. Su Negrin, Peter Hujar, and Suzanne Bevier created the offset lithograph poster “Gay Liberation” that showed activists linking arms in front of a mandala with the words “LET GO” at the center. The poster was used to “recruit people for the first Gay Pride March” in 1970. Other important images are “Silence=Death,” “Marching for Gay Men’s Health Crisis,” “I [Pink Triangle] New York 1969 Stonewall 1989,” “Bush AIDS Flag 216,” and “Portfolio ACT-UP Art Box 245.” There are transgender, lesbian, and gay people of color represented.

Lot #162: Vincent Cianni (1952 – ). Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera Marching, NYC Gay Pride. Via Swann Auction Galleries.

The Swann Auction Galleries occupies the entire floor of an office building near Madison Park in Manhattan. The floor is filled with various lots of art, printed material, and memorabilia, of almost anything you can imagine. In a phone interview, Nicholas D. Lowry, President and Principal Auctioneer, told me that this is the third LGBTQ+ auction they have presided over.

“Three years ago, during the 50th anniversary of Stonewall Riots, we were approached by a gay couple with a large collection of art, gay history, manuscripts, and artwork. Much to their surprise we agreed and used their collection as the basis for building much of the auction around. So, they gave us 150 pieces, and we reached out to our clientele, and we received another 125 pieces, and that was the first auction in its first iteration.”

“We agreed to them readily because we thought it was a wonderful idea,” Lowry said, “And we conducted the first auction, and it was a resounding success. It is one thing to have an idea, and another to have it be a success.”

Lot #21: (Féral Benga) A Pair Of Portraits Of The Iconic Figure François “Féral” Benga. Via Swann Auction Galleries.

Lot #124: Third World Gay Revolution: Pair Of Revolutionary Greeting Cards Issued By The Short-Lived Splinter Group Of The Gay Liberation Front. Via the Swann Auction Galleries.

Lowry said that every auction is always different from the previous auction: “The theme was exactly the same, LGBTQ+ history art material culture and history, but the material was different.” 

I asked Lowry about diversity in the auction, because the LGBTQ+ community has always struggled with discrimination. Lowry replied, “It has always been diverse. As auctioneers, we cannot pick and choose what goes into our exhibitions. We’re not a gallery, we’re an auction house. We can only sell what people bring to [us] to sell. So, if it seems that the auction is composed of gay white male material it is not by our choice, it is what the market brought to us to sell. We are selective, but if people do not bring Black lesbian material we cannot offer it.” Swann said he is open to auctioning Black lesbian material. “We would offer it if was presented to us.”

I mentioned that the gay erotic art of Tom of Finland (and others) as well gay erotic photography was a social statement about gay male love. He responded, “Any art can be seen as a social statement of the time and place in this world.” 

While every artist in the collection is acknowledged as LGBTQ+, the subject matter of the material is not all LGBTQ+ related. Lowry gave an example: “Keith Haring has work that has nothing to do with LGBTQ+, and Haring regarded himself as an artist who was gay [rather than a gay artist]. We received hundreds of nude photos, and we had to say that this is not a gay erotic show, this is a show about gay creatives.”

Speaking about the catalogue Lowry said, “We sent out the catalog about two weeks ago, and since then we have had an overwhelming response to the material in the auction.”

Lot #105: Diane Arbus (1923-1971)/Neil Selkirk (1947 – ) Two men dancing at a drag ball, NYC. Via Swann Auction Galleries.

The first catalogue sold for $35. The second catalogue was online, as is the current catalog. All the catalogues are online, and available for use by colleges and universities.

The previous catalogues have auctioned work from the 17th, 18th (Prussian Monarch, Frederick the Great), 19th and 20th centuries. This one focuses on the 19th and 20th. “We are historians and art connoisseurs, so the fact that the collections span the centuries is very satisfying for us,” Lowry said.

The LGBTQ+ ART, MATERIAL CULTURE & HISTORY Auction will take place on Aug. 19, 2021, at 12:00 p.m. EST.

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