Last January, a Bill Traylor drawing sold for a record $507,000 at Christie’s. The drawing was first-rate and came with an impressive provenance. Steven Spielberg gave it to Alice Walker, after directing The Color Purple, which was based on an adaptation of her novel. For whatever reason, she decided to sell it at auction and hit the jackpot. Besides setting a record for Bill Traylor, the sale seems to have added to the unwanted effect of fueling the Traylor forgeries market.
Briefly, Bill Traylor was an ex-slave from Montgomery, Alabama, who at the age of 85 began creating approximately 1,200 uncanny drawings, between 1939-1942. Traylor depicted life on the streets; mean dogs, feral cats, street corner preachers, fancy ladies with umbrellas, and men getting drunk. He was befriended by a young artist named Charles Shannon, who brought Traylor paint and sheets of discarded cardboard, in an effort to encourage his art. Shannon also had the foresight to preserve Traylor’s work. Eventually, decades later, he managed to kickstart a modest market for it. Personally, I exhibited the work in my San Francisco gallery Acme Art, in 1984. At the time, the drawings were a tough sell at $1,200.
Over the last twenty years, the work had grown in recognition and importance. As prices rose, fake Traylors began to trickle out. Some pretty decent forgeries started to crop up at regional auction houses — often finding buyers. Traylor’s subject matter and technique are fairly easy to duplicate. Presumably, with rising prices, it’s become worthwhile to do so. However, what the forgers don’t understand is that you can never duplicate Bill Traylor’s spirit. A genuine work by Traylor gives off a certain vibe. It’s a window into a long-lost world that can only be illustrated by someone who was actually there.
Assuming the rising tide of Traylor forgeries can be contained, his market has nowhere to go but up. Even at $500,000 (which, at least for the moment, is an outlier price), his work is a relative bargain. For the same money, you would be hard pressed to buy an average Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing, an ordinary Ed Ruscha drawing, or even a minor Cy Twombly drawing. What’s more, given the museum world’s reconfiguring of how the story of twentieth century art is told, Bill Traylor’s presence is likely to loom much larger.