This Pride Art Auction Doubles as a Snapshot of LGBTQ History

Swann Auction Galleries in New York is hosting its first ever Pride art auction this June.

Original Robert Mapplethorpe photographs from the 1980s.

First-editions of books by revered authors Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, complete with personalized inscriptions.

A handwritten letter penned by Harvey Milk during his one day as acting mayor of San Francisco in May 1978.

These are just some of the many items art collectors, buyers for institutions, and LGBTQ history buffs can bid on at Swann Auction Galleries’ first Pride-themed art auction this June. Timed to WorldPride 2019 in New York City and the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, the auction includes hundreds of artworks and historical artifacts, all created by LGBTQ artists or featuring queer people from history.

Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries
Walt Whitman, Memoranda During the War, Remembrance Copy, inscribed to Peter Doyle, from “the author with his love,” Camden, NJ, 1875-76. Estimate $50,000– $75,000.

Putting a starting price on these one-of-a-kind relics may seem impossible—and according to Nicholas D. Lowry, president and principal auctioneer at Swann Auction Galleries, it certainly wasn’t a quick process. The team spent months pulling together the incredible array of artifacts up for auction, including but not limited to: rare first-edition books; decades-old copies of The Advocate magazine; personal archives of historical figures like trans activist and actor Candy Darling; archival photos of New York City Pride with short inscriptions from the one and only Allen Ginsberg; ’60s and ’70s art posters; and more.

The collection’s diversity is reflected in a wide spectrum of starting bid prices, too. There’s even an eye-catching black guitar doodled on in gold by the late Keith Haring, hailing all the way from Japan (Swann Galleries predicts it’ll sell for $12,000–$18,000.)

“When Haring had a pop-up shop in Japan, someone stopped him on the street and asked him to sign his guitar,” Lowry tells NewNowNext, tilting the guitar so it glistens in the auction gallery’s stark overhead lighting. “Isn’t that so cool?”

Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries
Keith Haring, autograph guitar signed with an original Haring drawing, circa 1985. Estimate $12,000–$18,000.

The Pride auction isn’t a one-time deal, either. In fact, Swann Galleries intended from the very beginning to make LGBTQ artwork and artifacts regular fixtures at future sales.

“People have said to us, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea to do in honor of WorldPride and Stonewall50,” Lowry adds. “And we’re like, ‘Actually, no, we want to make this the first auction in a new department.’ And that’s what we think is going to happen.”

Lowry and Alexandra Nelson, Swann Galleries’ communications director, go on to explain how the friends, family, and partners of LGBTQ people who died during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s often kept their loved ones’ belongings in safe keeping. “They just became repositories,” Lowry says. “I mean, we have one [consignor] who’s like, ‘I have an apartment filled with artifacts, and I just don’t know what to do with them.’”

Lowry and Nelson hope that this year’s Pride auction inspires other owners of LGBTQ cultural artifacts to consider consigning their objects. People may not know the historical, cultural, or monetary value of seemingly mundane objects—like old letters, posters, journals, or personal photographs—that connect back to the queer community.

“We hope it will really open up the floodgates,” Lowry says.

Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries
Archive of 134 photographs by Hank O’Neal depicting Pride parades in New York City, each annotated by Allen Ginsberg, silver prints, 1970s. Estimate $70,000– $100,000.

Nelson agrees, likening the wave of inquiries from consignors they’re anticipating to the poignant origin story of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on Wooster Street in New York City. (Back in the ’80s, the museum, still in its infancy, rescued artworks by queer artists who died of HIV/AIDS from their homophobic or apathetic family members.)

Best of all, Swann Auction Galleries is putting its money where its mouth is: Select consignors have agreed to donate a portion of each auction sale to the Leslie-Lohman Museum, and Swann Galleries will match those donations.

The auction items are on view and open to the public at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City from June 15–20. Biddings for the Pride Sale begin at 1:30pm on Thursday, June 20. Visit Swann Auction Galleries’ website for more information.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.