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Country Americana

A portrait of a man by self-taught Alabama artist Bill Traylor (circa 1854-1949), mixed media on paperboard, sold for $31,200 (includes buyer’s premium) to top the country Americana sale held by Garth’s Auctions on September 11 in Delaware, Ohio.

Although sources disagree on his birth and death dates, fudging a year or two on each end, there’s no dispute that Traylor was born a slave on a cotton plantation in the American South and witnessed emancipation as a child before working as a sharecropper as a free man.

Late in life, in 1928, he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where years later he lived on the street. In 1939, while in his 80s, Traylor began dabbling in art, initially creating works on found materials such as cardboard. Inspiration came from his agricultural past and his present life in the city, with varied subject matter including people, animals, and landmarks.

He was soon discovered by Charles Shannon, a white artist who supported Traylor’s work. Shannon provided art supplies and set in motion a one-man show in 1940 at New South, a cultural center he founded. Bill Traylor: People’s Artist featured 100 drawings. By 1942 interest in Traylor’s art had spread beyond Alabama, and Bill Traylor: American Primitive (Work of an Old Negro) opened at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York. The event was a commercial failure.

Traylor is believed to have created roughly 1500 works of art on the streets of Montgomery from 1939 to 1942. Health issues halted his creative endeavors, and he spent the last years of his life with his children and other relatives in the Midwest and East Coast before finally moving back to Montgomery, where he died.

Traylor’s works remained out of view until the late 1970s, when Shannon retrieved the art from storage. A 1979-80 exhibition, Bill Traylor 1854-1947, held by R.H. Oosterom, Inc., in New York City, resulted in the first institutional purchase, when Man on Mule sold to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research library of the New York Public Library. Even so, momentum was slow to build. According to an article by ARTnews, Philadelphia dealer John Ollman began offering Traylor’s art in 1981. Prices started at $150, and the works were said to be “hard to sell.”

That was changing by the late 1990s, as Traylor’s drawings and paintings became increasingly sought as examples of Outsider art, resulting in six-figure prices in private sales and at auction. The market has continued to build. Man with a Plow, a 15" x 25¾" work of a blue man behind a black horse and plow, realized $365,000 (includes buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s in January 2014.

Acclaim has walked in step with increased demand. As part of an exhibition in 2013, the American Folk Art Museum described Traylor’s works as “notable for their flat, simply defined shapes and vibrant compositions in which memories and observations relating to African American life are merged.” The institution added, “Traylor is recognized as one of the finest American artists of the 20th century.”

The drawing offered at Garth’s was a full-figure depiction of a man wearing a hat and jacket. Measuring 10" x 8" and in colored pencil and pencil on paperboard, the piece had some edge roughness, toning, and foxing. It was mounted to a fabric-covered backboard. The price fell within estimate.


her top lots included a New England fireboard that sold for $16,800. In pine, it had the original marbleized and faux-brick paint, surrounded by trompe l’oeil delft tiles. The item is thought to have originated in Sutton, Massachusetts, in the late 18th century.

The best of the furniture was a Hepplewhite serpentine-front sideboard in mahogany with inlay, late 18th century, that sold for $7800, while a Sheraton one-drawer stand from Maine, the red and black grain paint further decorated with yellow leaves, brought $6600.

Smalls included a pair of silhouettes attributed to the Puffy Sleeve Artist (New England, circa 1830), three-quarter images of a man and woman with watercolor clothing and accessories, that brought $7800, and a tole document box with a domed lid, having its original red ground decorated with two birds, fruit, and flourishes, of Connecticut origin and dating to the second quarter of the 19th century, that realized $6600.

For more information, phone Garth’s at (740) 362-4771 or visit (

Originally published in the December 2015 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2015 Maine Antique Digest - See more at:

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