A Sale of a Lifetime

At Gray's Auctioneers

For 30 years, the Reverend Albert Wagner's East Cleveland home served as a church and a museum for the hundreds of artworks he constantly produced with whatever materials he had on hand — acrylics, markers, graphite, plywood, toys, driftwood. If Wagner worked like a man on a mission, it's because he was.

Fixing up his house the midnight before his 50th birthday, Wagner noticed a floorboard stained with paint. The sight flooded him with memories of his childhood love of art, which he had been unable to pursue due to desperate poverty. Taking it as a sign from God, he resolved to reignite his early passion and use it as a ministry.

For the final three decades of his life, Wagner worked continuously to create his sometimes affectionate, sometimes scorching commentary on race and religion. In the process, he drew the attention of critics, collectors, and even documentary filmmakers, becoming one of the nation's best-known outsider artists.

Wagner left 20 children to divide his legacy after his death in 2006. Eventually, his estate approached several auction houses to sell his collection of 800-plus items. Cleveland's Gray's Auctioneers and Appraisers leapt at the opportunity, and will be exhibiting and selling the works this month.

"It's going out in the best possible way," says auction house owner Deborah Gray. "It's getting it to people who otherwise wouldn't have seen it."

Items range from epic-scale paintings to bundles of postcard-sized sketches. Modeled on the artist, the eight-foot-tall, mixed-media "Moses and the Ten Commandments" (pictured) is one of the earliest, largest, and most important works of Wagner's career; its selling price is estimated at between $800 and $1,200.

Wagner's daughter Bonita Wagner Johnson says it's sad to see so much of her father's work leave the region. However, the scattering can also be seen as the fulfillment of Wagner's prophecy. "He said, 'God's going to plant my feet on all four corners of the Earth with art,'" she says.

Wagner's works will go on display at the auction house on September 13; a preview party is set for September 14 from 6 to 10 p.m. The September 20 auction begins at 11 a.m. at 10717 Detroit Ave. For more information, call 216-458-7695 or go to graysauctioneers.com.

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