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‘My highlight of 2016’ — Boxer by William Edmondson

Outsider Art specialist Cara Zimmerman on a ‘profoundly important’ and record-breaking sculpture

‘Being able to present a significant work by an exceptional artist is every specialist’s dream,’ says Christie’s Outsider and Folk Art specialist Cara Zimmerman of William Edmondson’s Boxer, which sold for $785,000 on 22 January 2016 — soaring above its estimate of $150,000-200,000. The figure was three times higher than the artist’s previous record, and established a new world record for a work of Outsider Art.

The Boxer, which was the top lot of Christie’s inaugural Outsider Art sale, is an exceptional demonstration of Edmondson’s skill as a sculptor of stone. Standing at just 17 inches high, the limestone figure represents a fighter poised to strike, his arms cocked, his stance strong and balanced. ‘Edmondson’s talent is revealed in the various textures at play, from the mottled surface of the boxer’s hair to the smooth contours rendering the seams on his clothing,’ notes Zimmerman. 

William Edmondson (1874–1951), Boxer, circa 1936. Limestone. 17 x 7¼ x 9¼ in. Estimate $150,000–250,000. Sold for $785,000 on 22 January at Christie’s New York
William Edmondson (1874–1951), Boxer, circa 1936. Limestone. 17 x 7¼ x 9¼ in. Estimate: $150,000–250,000. Sold for: $785,000 on 22 January at Christie’s New York

Although Edmondson offered no direct association with a living boxer, the work is likely to have been modelled on Joe Louis, who was World Heavyweight Champion from 1937 until 1949. His success in the sport was instrumental in eroding racial boundaries, and he is widely regarded as the first African American to achieve the status of nationwide hero in the United States.

‘The Boxer is more than an image of Louis or any individual athlete,’ continues Zimmerman. ‘Edmondson takes the boxer as a symbol of African American triumph, memorialising the strength of black culture.’ Born in Nashville to former slaves, Edmondson was instrumental in breaking racial barriers in his own sphere, becoming the first African American artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1937.

Today, comments Zimmerman, Edmondson is one of the ‘old masters’ of Outsider Art — a growing collecting area, which celebrates artists operating outside established arts institutions. ‘But Edmondson’s story and objects transcend categories,’ she stresses. ‘His work features in the collections of major institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.’

The small sculpture was reportedly one of Edmondson’s favourites, and he kept it in his backyard, resting on a shelf protected by an overhang. ‘Selling this profoundly important sculpture was an amazing moment, both for me and for the field of Outsider Art,’ Zimmerman concludes. ‘That an iconic sculpture by the artist has set the world record for Outsider Art is exhilarating.’ The previous record for a work by the artist, achieved just two years previously in 2014 for the sculpture Mother and Child, was $263,000, and also set at Christie’s in New York.