Auction  January 24, 2020  Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Bill Traylor Folk Art Masterpiece Sets New Record at Auction

Christie's Images LTD

Bill Traylor (circa 1853-1949), Man with Black Dog (detail), 1939-1942. Tempera and graphite on paper.

Bill Traylor is a titan of American self-taught art. Born into slavery, he only began creating in 1939, ten years before he died at the age of 95. While he gained some recognition during his lifetime, his reputation climbed slowly and steadily in the decades that followed. By 1985, when director Steven Spielberg readied to release the film The Color Purple, Traylor’s work was prominent enough to make for a thoughtful gift to Alice Walker, author of the book the film was based upon. 

On January 17, that Traylor work headlined Christie’s Outsider Art sale, bearing an estimate of $200,000 to $400,000. Cara Zimmerman, head of sale for outsider art at Christie’s, enjoyed a great surprise when she removed the work from its frame and discovered it was double-sided. Evidently, the gallery that framed it and sold it to Spielberg chose to showcase the side now titled Man on White, Woman on Red. The long-concealed work bears a similarly straightforward, descriptive name: Man with Black Dog.

christies images ltd

Bill Traylor (circa 1853-1949), Man on White, Woman on Red, 1939-1942. Tempera and graphite on paper.

“The reason we discovered it was due diligence. You can get important information from the reverse [of a Traylor work]. I hoped it would be an interesting note from Charles Shannon,” Zimmerman says, citing the man credited with discovering Traylor. “But I got a dynamic second image on the back. I couldn’t have been happier. It’s very exciting. It’s an absolute dream to unframe a piece and find an equally spectacular piece on the reverse.”

Traylor was reasonably prolific for an artist who started late in life. He produced more than 1,000 works, and few are double-sided. Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog might be the first fully realized double-sided Traylor to go to auction; his top ten auction results belong to single-sided pieces.

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Bill Traylor (circa 1853-1949), Man with Black Dog, 1939-1942. Tempera and graphite on paper.

Measuring 18 7/8 by 24 inches, the double-sided work is considered large-scale for Traylor, and it might show him making the most of a rare opportunity to fill both sides of a blank sheet of paper. “Usually, he worked on card. Most of the time, his single-sided works are on the back of advertisements or posters,” Zimmerman says. “I think what we’re seeing here is him enjoying and using his materials to great effect, and taking full advantage of them.”

The higher number in the estimate range overlaps the previous auction record for the artist, set in January 2019 at Christie’s. Titled Woman Pointing at Man with Cane, that work rocketed past its estimate of $40,000 to $60,000 to command $396,500. Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog sold for $507,000, setting a new world auction record for the artist. 

Zimmerman had high hopes for the work at auction: “One of the things I love about outsider art in general, and Traylor, is that they’re artist’s artists. Often, many of these artworks survive because artists find something in them and love them. An artist, in the form of Charles Shannon, saved it. Steven Spielberg, another artist, gave it to another artist, Alice Walker. One brilliant, creative mind after another loved this object, and that will help it.”

About the Author

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is an independent writer and editor who specializes in travel, luxury, art, design, collectibles, and many other subjects. Follow her on Twitter at @sgswritereditor and Instagram at @thehotbid.

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