Department of Economics
University of Delaware
Working Paper #2006-06
Art Prices and Race: Paintings by African American Artists and Their White Contemporaries
Richard Agnello and Xiaowen Xu
In this paper we compare prices of oil paintings sold at auction from 1972 to 2004 for African American artists and their white contemporaries. It is widely documented by the art community that African American art has been under appreciated in America going back to the time of slavery. Along with the great strides made in the twentieth century towards racial equality in the U.S., African American art has become recognized in the national and international art scene with much focus from galleries, programs and exhibitions. Our interest is to investigate the extent that economic and financial markets have incorporated mainstream acceptance of African American art.
Painting prices for African American artists and their white contemporaries are compared using two statistical regimes. First uncontrolled comparisons are made for the two groups in the aggregate as well as for each African American artist versus their white contemporary. Average real prices are found to be significantly lower for African American artists throughout the time period in the aggregate as well as in almost every individual comparison. The second statistical framework controls for factors characterizing the painting and the auction sale in an hedonic regression model. Significant differences in price persist between the two groups. However structural changes occur within the 1972-2004 period which narrows the gap. A significantly higher rate of growth for prices of paintings by African American artists occurs throughout the time period. The price gap thus appears to be narrowing indicating a convergence of economic reality and artistic appreciation. In addition, the higher investment returns for paintings by African American artists made them a relatively profitable art niche in recent years and possibly for the future since economic values have not yet completely converged for the two groups.