Johnson Publishing office artwork fetches nearly $3 million in bankruptcy auction
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Johnson Publishing office artwork fetches nearly $3 million in bankruptcy auction

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Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rogers at the company's Chicago headquarters in a 2015 file image. Artwork from the company's offices sold at auction for nearly $3 million amid bankruptcy proceedings.

Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rogers at the company's Chicago headquarters in a 2015 file image. Artwork from the company's offices sold at auction for nearly $3 million amid bankruptcy proceedings. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO - Artwork that once adorned the Chicago offices of Johnson Publishing, the bankrupt former publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, fetched nearly $3 million at auction - more than its Fashion Fair cosmetics business sold for in December.

The auction Thursday at Swann Galleries in New York featured a collection of paintings, sculptures and other works from 75 African American artists, most of which was assembled after the 1971 opening of Johnson Publishing's former headquarters at 820 S. Michigan Ave.

The collection brought in more than twice the pre-auction estimate of $1.2 million. The top piece was a painting by influential artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, which sold for $365,000.

"The sale of the Johnson Publishing Company's collection was the perfect storm of an auction - a prestigious name sale anchored with significant works," Nigel Freeman, director of African-American Fine Art at Swann Galleries, said in a statement.

The art auction proceeds will be used to pay back former CEO Desiree Rogers for $2.7 million in loans she made to Johnson Publishing and other secured claims against the company.

First published in 1945, Ebony was the centerpiece of a thriving family business, documenting the African American experience for more than 70 years. Its success gave rise to Jet, as well as Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which launched in 1973.

Struggling in the digital age, the company sold its magazines for an undisclosed price in 2016 to Clear View Group, an Austin, Texas-based private equity firm, which put Ebony on print hiatus last year.

Johnson Publishing, which retained its cosmetics business and its historic Ebony photo archives, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in April.

In a July auction, the photo archives sold to a consortium of foundations for $30 million. The proceeds were used to pay back $13.6 million owed to secured creditors George Lucas and Mellody Hobson, who issued a $12 million loan to Johnson Publishing in 2015.

Rogers, the former social secretary for President Barack Obama who was CEO of Johnson Publishing from 2010 to 2017, is part of an investment group that bought Fashion Fair for $1.85 million at a December auction.

Among the Chicago artists featured in the collection was Carrie Mae Weems. A seven-piece photo panel by Weems sold for $305,000 - a record for the artist, according to Swann. The work, which focuses on the northern migration of African Americans, was commissioned by the City of Chicago, with three editions in circulation. One remains in Chicago, on display in the Bee Branch of the Chicago Public Library.

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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