At a Civil Rights demonstration in Georgia in 1965, a black teenager, Winfred Rembert, was chased down an alley, and, fearing for his life, jumped into a car that had keys in the ignition and sped off. He was, inevitably, caught and jailed for theft, but managed to escape. Shortly after the escape, a local sheriff and his state troopers attempted to lynch him, but he survived because a man stepped in and said Rembert should go to jail instead.
There followed a harrowing seven years of imprisonment, of police brutality and racial abuse, working on a chain gang in the cotton fields. This is all recounted in graphic detail in Rembert’s dictated memoir, Chasing Me to My Grave, which won a Pulitzer Prize, a year after his death in March 2021.
In spite of the trauma and oppression, Rembert kept his spirits up with a sense of humour and thinking of his deep love for a young woman, Patsy, who married him after he was released in 1974 and bore him eight children.
And then there was the art. While incarcerated, Rembert learned how to tool leather from an inmate. On his release he made a living selling decorated purses and handbags for up to $150 each – but it was not enough to feed his growing family, so he became a drug dealer.
Eventually, when this lifestyle began to wear thin, Patsy persuaded him to turn his leather designs into art. Rembert’s subject was his own life – the joys he experienced in the pool halls and juke clubs he frequented as a youngster, as well as the travails of the chain gang – turning subjects of oppression and injustice into objects of beauty.
Although he was never schooled in reading and writing, he had learned to draw. His leather-painting technique was to place his drawings onto damp leather, and trace them. He would then bevel the leather using a pear shader for eyes and lips and colour it with dye.
It was not until he was 55 that his work was discovered by Jock Reynolds, curator at Yale University Art Gallery, who arranged an exhibition at the university gallery. From here, he was encouraged by the antiques dealer Peter Tillou, who engineered Rembert’s first exhibition in a commercial art gallery, Adelson in New York, in 2010. He was 65, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the gallery priced his works at around $35,000 each.
The market, though, did not respond until after his death, and in October 2021, he was given a large exhibition by Fort Gansevoort, a New York gallery, which, benefitting from the publication of his memoir, attracted significant acclaim with critics likening his work to the established African-American greats Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Asking prices rose to between $90,000 and $275,000. Following the show, works purchased by leading collectors Agnes Gund and Mitchell Rales were donated to American museums.
While Rembert was alive, hardly any of his work appeared at auction. But in April 2021, barely a month after his death, works from the estate of a book dealer who had supported him quadrupled estimates to sell for up to $50,000 each. In the autumn of 2022, several works from Peter Tillou’s estate, estimated at $40,000 each, appeared at Brunk Auctions in North Carolina, and were sold for up to $283,000 each. As a measure of the actual price movement, one painting of a school classroom, which had sold at Swann Auction Galleries in 2018 for $2,125, was re-entered at the same auction house in 2022 and sold for $233,000.
In January, at a sale at Christie’s New York devoted to “Outsider” art, the top lot was Rembert’s The Black Cat, a painting of a buzzing café scene, which doubled estimates to sell for $302,600. A few days later, in what may have been a factor in raising interest in the artist, Hauser & Wirth, one of the world’s most powerful galleries, announced that, having seen his work at Fort Gansevoort and read his memoir, they had taken a share in representing Rembert’s estate, and planned an exhibition later this month in New York, and then in the UK and Europe at a later date.
New art fair is ‘post-Covid fight back for London’
The cancellation last month of two grand London art and antiques fairs, Masterpiece London and Art & Antiques Olympia, due to be staged at the height of the summer season, came as a shock to the art trade who blamed onerous post-Brexit red tape for the lack of foreign exhibitors applying to take stands. But already, the higher-profile event, Masterpiece, staged in a period-looking structure in the grounds of Christopher Wren’s Chelsea Royal Hospital, has found a replacement.
Two of the original founders of Masterpiece (antiques dealer Thomas Woodham-Smith and owner of fair builder Stabilo International Harry van der Hoorn), along with most of the international art and antiques trade, believe that Masterpiece had become such an important event in the calendar that it should not sink without trace. Woodham-Smith confirms that they have secured Chelsea Royal Hospital at the same time of year (June 22-26). Another Masterpiece veteran, furniture dealer Simon Phillips, says that many of his trade colleagues are eager to take part in a multi-disciplinary event for the best in fine art, furniture, design from all ages, sculpture, clocks, jewellery and antiquities.
To those who portray the cancellations of Masterpiece and Olympia as indicative of a general malaise in the British art and antiques market, Woodham-Smith replies: “The new fair, entitled The London Summer Art Fair, is a post-Brexit, post-Covid fight back for London.”