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Legendary Outsider Artist Lee Godie’s Work Is for Sale—at a State Unclaimed Property Auction

The late, beloved Chicago outsider artist has been featured in the Art Institute and the Smithsonian, and now she headlines an auction by the Illinois State Treasurer.

Lee Godie’s hustle outside the Art Institute eventually got her art in the doors.   Photo: Office of the Illinois State Treasurer

“Would you like to buy some canvases? I’m much better than Cezanne.”

This was Chicago artist Lee Godie’s oft-quoted pitch as she sold her artwork on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago. If you said yes, she might have opened up her voluminous coat like an illicit salesman to show you the rolled canvases stored there. Or, she might have decided that she didn’t like something about you and walked away without a word.

On May 12, the office of the Illinois State Treasurer will host a live unclaimed property auction, which it does to clear out objects that have remained without claimants in the state’s possession for ten years. Among the coins, old bills, and jewelry, three original Godie drawings done in ballpoint pen will be up for auction.

Godie, who worked in many mediums but was best known for her paintings and proto-Cindy Sherman self-portrait photographs, lived on the streets of Chicago for most of her artistic career. She was known as much for her personality as her art early on, as she was hard to miss in her inimitable wardrobe and makeup that was often literally painted on, singing and dancing for would-be customers.

Although celebrated in her lifetime—mayor Richard M. Daley declared September 1991 Lee Godie Exhibition Month—Godie’s works have risen in esteem and value since her death in 1994. Three of her artworks are now inside the same Art Institute that she spent so much time outside. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a number of her paintings. There have been traveling solo exhibitions dedicated to Godie, but often they don’t travel far. Compared to Chicago’s internationally renowned outsider art celebrity Henry Darger, Godie has largely remained a hometown hero.

It’s unusual for the state to have possession of original works like Godie’s, which Greg Rivara, press secretary for the Treasurer, noted is a draw for the upcoming auction. Illinois State Treasurer Michael W. Frerichs tweeted a promotion for the auction that contained one of Godie’s drawings as the exclusive image, highlighting the novelty of auctioning off “found” original artwork.

Because her fame remained largely regional, and due to the sheer volume of work she produced, Godie’s artwork can be sold at a relatively accessible price point. According to Carl Hammer, owner of Carl Hammer Gallery, (who also officially certified the authenticity of the three drawings to be auctioned) Godie’s art can go for anything from a few hundred to ten thousand dollars. At a recent collectors’ sale at Intuit, a Godie drawing of daisies was being offered for $700. Admittedly, it’s not quite as good as the $5 and $10 price tags worn by her earliest works. Maybe that’s where the bidding can start.

The Illinois Treasurer’s Unclaimed Property Auction will take place at 11 AM on May 12 at the Chicago Journeyman Plumbers Local Union 130 UA.

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