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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

A History of Excellence

Swann celebrates its 75th anniversary By Peggy Carouthers Peggy Carouthers lives in North Carolina and is the editor of custom content at Journalistic Inc.

The story of Swann Galleries began on March 27, 1942, when Benjamin Swann held an auction dedicated to rare and antique books. From its beginnings in a four-person office to the dynamic community of collectors and specialists on staff today, Swann has grown to become the largest specialty auction house for works on paper.

George S. and Nicholas D. Lowry. Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

After seventy-five years, this third-generation, family-owned business continues to uphold the traditions of the auction and antique world while remaining open to innovative ideas.

“As a smaller house with experts who are working every day in their chosen fields, seeing material, and meeting collectors, we are in a position to move quickly,” said Nicholas D. Lowry, president and principal auctioneer of Swann. This flexibility has allowed Swann to break new ground in the auction world.

Swann was the first house to conduct auctions of both Printed & Manuscript African Americana and African-American Fine Art. In 2006, the auction house launched a dedicated African-American Fine Art department when Nigel Freeman, now director, noticed how strongly works by African-American artists were selling in Prints & Drawings sales.

“That first auction overflowed to our second floor, where we had an audio feed as well as a second auctioneer to field bids from the record-breaking crowds,” Lowry said, noting that the now biannual sales have consistently broken auction records for established artists, and set those with no history.

“Through these sales, we have brought many artists to auction for the first time and have codified a whole new field of collecting interest,” he says. The department shook the auction world with single-owner sales like The Art Collection of Dr. Maya Angelou, and with sky-high prices for artists, such as Norman Lewis, whose circa 1958 untitled canvas garnered nearly one million dollars in 2015.

On February 14, 1952, Swann was the first American auction house to hold a sale dedicated to photographs. The house continues to drive this category today and held its most recent Icons & Images: Photographs & Photobooks sale on the 65th anniversary of that first sale. Later, Swann held the first auction dedicated to photo books, and, in 2014, the first sale of vernacular photography. The director of the department, Daile Kaplan, is a champion of this field. The sale featured albums, snapshots, and documentary photographs celebrating everyday life and beauty.

Swann added a department of Illustration Art in 2013, offering original artwork intended for publication. That wide designation includes magazine covers, cartoons, advertisements, and illustrations for books. The department met with such success that by 2016 it had to expand, and now holds biannual auctions.

As the industry continues to change, so does Swann. Technology is revolutionizing the way auction houses work. With a firm foot grounded in the house’s long history, Swann continues looking towards the future and leading the industry.

“One thing people can expect from Swann is that as things change, Swann will certainly adapt to the times, but we will never lose sight of our traditional roots,” Lowry said. “There is something so psychologically primal about an auction, and we don’t want to lose touch with that profound emotional connection.”

Peggy Carouthers lives in North Carolina and is the editor of custom content at Journalistic Inc.