Self-Taught Sam Doyle’s Painting of his Grandmother Soars to $204,000 at Folk Art Sale

This house paint on found roofing tin work by Sam Doyle titled “St. Helena’s First Blak (sic) Midwife Trane (sic) By Dr. White” sold for $204,000 at Slotin Folk Art Auction’s Delta Blues to Visual Blues Auction, a world auction record for the artist.

BUFORD, Ga. – When Sam Doyle sat down with a few cans of house paint and a piece of rusted tin roofing, he could have never thought that the hour or two he spent painting a picture of his grandmother holding a newborn infant would ever mean much to anyone other than himself and maybe his family.

On April 26, a trio of determined phone bidders battled for ownership the painting, titled “St. Helena’s First Blak (sic) Midwife Trane (sic) By Dr. White,” at Slotin Folk Art Auction’s Delta Blues to Visual Blues Auction, at the Historic Buford Hall, electrifying the 200 or so people in the room. When the dust had settled—and after 23 bids and counterbids had been logged—the 28-inch by 50-inch piece of folk-art had gaveled for $170,000 ($204,000 with the buyer’s premium), a world auction record for the artist. The winner bidder was an anonymous buyer from Europe.

“After the bidding reached $150,000, everybody was on the edge of their seats and a quiet hush fell over the hall,” said Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art Auction. “And after the hammer dropped, there was applause, cheering, but the auction is still going on. It was almost like everyone was shell-shocked. Whoever bought the next piece got a great deal because everyone was still talking about the big sale.”

Three significant facts went into making the Doyle painting realize nearly five times its pre-sale high estimate of $35,000. First, it had previously resided in the Chuck and Jan Rosenak private collection and came will impeccable provenance. Secondly, it was featured with a color photograph in their book “The Museum of American Folk Art’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Folk Art.” Finally, it was the subject matter that made the piece all the more desirable.

The painting depicts an African-American woman looking directly at the viewer, wearing a blue dress and a white headscarf while seated on a black chair and holding a white infant, who is looking up at the woman.

“Sam Doyle was pretty much the only one keeping the Black history of the Frogmore areas of St. Helena Island (South Carolina) alive,” Slotin said. “He was known for his paintings of people of historical importance, such as the first black doctor or the first black grocer or dry cleaner on the island. This painting, of his grandmother, brought home a personal essence to the piece.”

Doyle (1906-1985) was a self-taught artist born on St. Helena Island who began painting after he retired at the age of 62. He painted on, and with, whatever he could find—cans of discarded house paint, old boards and rusted tin roofing sheets. He would then display his work in an ersatz gallery in his front yard, nailing the works right to the outside of his house or leaning them up against trees.

He never thought of himself an artist, though, said Slotin. “Very typical of self-taught artists, they never really considered themselves ‘artists.’ They were just driven to create. Like Howard Finster was religiously driven to paint, Sam Doyle was driven to keep the history of the island alive.”

Like many now-respected artists, his work began receiving positive attention from the art world after his death.

“Of course, he didn’t think they had much value,” Slotin said. “Sometimes he would paint the price—ten dollars, twenty dollars—right on the painting.”

Doyle’s painting was the top-selling lot the two-day auction; the first day was dedicated to folk art, mostly from the Deep South, called “Visual Blues.” The second day of the auction was called “Delta Blues” and featured photographs, concert posters, records and more.

“We married two entirely American-born and inspired phenomena—folk art and the blues—into one massive, two-day sale, and it went very well,” said Amy Slotin. “It was one of our most successful auctions to date. Bids poured in literally from around the world, prices were strong and several world records were shattered.

“It is heartening to know that, even now with the economy still in a state of recovery and many collecting categories seeing a downturn in sales, prices and the market for self-taught art seems to be on an upswing and stronger than ever,” Amy Slotin added, noting that the two-day auction realized a combined $1.2 million in sales.

The fact that the winning bidder was from Europe is not surprising, Steve Slotin said. “We have seen a lot of our European buyers collecting southern folk art, and it’s been on a steady increase every auction.”

Slotin Folk Art Auction’s next big event will be a Fall Masterpiece Sale, scheduled for Nov. 8-9, which will feature, among other items, a large selection of early Meaders pottery pieces. For more information about this or the upcoming auction, or to consign items to sell, call 404.403.4244, e-mail to or visit the Slotin Folk Art Auction website.

Gregory Watkins is the editor of You can e-mail him at

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