This 33" x 24" cloth banner sold to an institution via an agent for $43,200 (est. $2500/3500). It is a rare relic of the earliest days of the Black Panther political party and movement, founded in Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1966.
A manuscript search warrant for five runaway slaves sold for $7200 (est. $2500/3500). Dated April 26, 1769, it was signed by Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794), an eventual signer of the Declaration of Independence, who here is asking his constables “to search diligently” for “Negroes” named Alice, Judy, Sue, and Will, who escaped following their purchase, “and to make Hue and Cry after them.”
The sale catalog was prefaced with a short essay about the Emancipation Proclamation, this being its sesquicentennial. It said through “sheerest good luck” there were three rare Emancipation Proclamation lithographs in this sale. They came from three different sources. This 13" x 17½" steel engraving by J.W. Watts, considered iconic, achieved $3600 (est. $800/1200). It was published in Connecticut by Lucius Stebbins in 1864.
A 12 3/8" x 9¼" mezzotint engraving of Cinqué (c.1814-c.1879), leader of the slave revolt aboard the Amistad, sold to a phone bidder for $6240 (est. $1500/2500). Published in Philadelphia by John Sartain in 1841, the print is based on an original oil painting commissioned by noted African-American abolitionist Robert Purvis (1810-1898).
A copy of the first and only printing of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States. Printed in what the catalog described as “a remote little shack” in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, in 1858, by African-American author and journalist William Howard Day (1825-1900), it sold to a phone bidder for $22,800 (est. $10,000/15,000). Day’s research could not come up with the sale of any other copy for “as long as records have been kept.” He speculated about why it is such a rarity. “Owning a copy, if you were unfortunate enough to be visited by the gendarmes, would be an instant passport to the gallows. So that is one of the reasons why you don’t see it, ever. People destroyed their copies.” This came from an institution that had two and deaccessioned one, said Day, who identified its buyer as a dealer who usually buys for an Ivy League institution.
Most auction houses still underestimate cookbooks, even as acknowledgment of the cultural richness of recipes grows. This first edition of Lena Richard’s Cook Book, estimated at $500/750, sold for $2040. Published in New Orleans in 1939, it was inscribed by the author, who was a restaurateur, caterer, and cooking school operator. Richard was also one of the earliest cooks to appear on television. Her twice-weekly cooking show, Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book, aired on WDSU-TV in 1949-50. For more information, see the Web site of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans (www.southern food.org), which is organizing an exhibit about Richard.
This 16-page songbook of classic spirituals by Ferguson’s Dixie Jubilee Concert Company (“The Best Company of Colored Talent in the World”) sold for $5280 (est. $400/600). It was published in the late 19th or early 20th century by W.H. Gage in Chicago.
This black-and-white 17" x 22" Black Panthers poster from the late 1960’s was meant to echo the Vietnam antiwar rally cry “Peace Now!” It sold after a phone-bids battle for $5520 (est. $600/800).
Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared the freedom of slaves in the Confederate states in 1863, each state of the Union had to officially ratify it. A copy of the 13th amendment to Rhode Island’s constitution sold for $21,600 (est. $1500/2500). The 10" x 7¾" single page, removed from a scrapbook, was dated February 2, 1865, and signed by Rhode Island’s Secretary of State John R. Bartlett (1805-1886).
Swann Galleries, New York City
Photos courtesy Swann Galleries
It wasn’t only two bidders willing to pay the proverbial “crazy money” who took a Black Panther banner to $43,200 (includes buyer’s premium) at Swann’s 18th annual printed and manuscript African Americana sale in New York City on March 21. “Everybody wants a piece of this,” auctioneer Nicholas Lowry murmured in amazement as new bidders jumped into the competition at late points along the way. “And if that’s not a world record for a Black Panther banner, I will be very surprised,” Lowry said after his hammer came down.
Its maker had sewn a silhouette of a black panther in felt into the banner’s center. The date “67” was stenciled onto its green and white linen background. A single black paw print marked where the green and white pieces joined. Simply designed and executed, the relic from the earliest days of the Black Panther political party, estimated at $2500/3500, went to an agent who buys for an institution, Swann’s department expert Wyatt Houston Day said.
Founded in Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1966, the nascent movement provided the foundation for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense that arose in Oakland, California, that same year. “When [party leader] Stokely [Carmichael] went out to the West Coast, he took the concept with him,” said Day. “So that is truly the origins of the Black Panthers.”
Given the short-lived nature of the Alabama group, materials such as the banner are extremely rare. As Day wrote in the catalog, very little evidence of the Panthers from this period remains. “What was not destroyed by the local Klan-types at the time was soon erased after Carmichael and other organizers left.” Still, Day called the price “absolutely stunning.”
Trying to make sense of it, Day said, “One constant in my sales is the body of material that spans the Atlantic slave trade through emancipation. There are peaks and valleys within that, but in those categories I know what to acquire and what to put in the sale and pretty much what’s going to sell.” What will happen to the material from the modern era, however, is not predictable, because that market is still emerging.
The sale was a long one, offering 555 lots that covered four centuries. It produced slightly more than $950,000 on estimates of $574,450/836,850. The slavery and abolition section produced the top item. It was a group of 94 letters between two members of an abolitionist family in Farmington, Connecticut. The correspondence went on the phone for $66,000 (est. $30,000/40,000). The buyer was the Connecticut Historical Society, Day said.
A few days before the sale, the historical society sent a number of people to the preview. They spent the whole day examining the letters and Day’s lengthy notes about them. “Afterwards, they spoke to a reporter from the Hartford Courant, who wrote that they wanted desperately to have the letters but weren’t sure if they had enough funds,” Day recalled. With help from members of the Farmington Historical Society, the money was raised. “People poured out their pocketbooks and their hearts, and they were able to buy them,” Day said.
The period that the correspondence covers is 1833-46. Almost all of it was written by Charlotte Cowles (1820-1866), who became a founding member of the Farmington Ladies Anti-Slavery Committee. She wrote the letters to her brother Samuel (1814-1872), who grew up to become editor of a Connecticut abolitionist newspaper, the Charter Oak. The ones that Charlotte wrote to Samuel in 1841 are the most noteworthy. They are the 21-year-old’s dramatic reportage and commentary on the family’s interaction with the freed slaves of the Amistad.
As did other Connecticut abolitionists who supported them during their legal trials, the Cowles family took in the former captives while funds were being raised to pay for their passage back to Sierra Leone. One of the children was resident at their home. This led to interactions with many others of the freed group including the uprising’s leader, Cinqué. Charlotte relates these events vividly, including dialogue. What it amounts to, Day observed, is “a firsthand, collective slave narrative of the Amistad captives.”
An eloquent letter written by a black Union soldier to a friend was one of the sale’s most extraordinary offerings from the Civil War section of the sale. It went to a room bidder for $38,400 (est. $6000/8000). Sergeant Morgan W. Carter, who was born in Madison, Indiana, wrote the three pages on December 3, 1864, while serving with the 9th Corps, 4th Division, in City Point, Virginia. Carter told his friend of his homesickness and his wounds and described his winter quarters. More significantly, he wrote of the principles he was fighting for, declaring that he would “give up my life most willingly to benefit the Colored Race.” He continued, “If I should die before I receive the benefit of it I will have the consolation of nowing [sic] that the generations to come will receive the blessing of it.”
Considering Carter’s birthplace, the Indianapolis Historical Society “wanted the letter desperately,” said Day. “And just like in Connecticut with the Cowles lot, there was an article in the paper, and they asked people to help. But they didn’t help enough. It was bought by a private individual whom I do not know. I’m hoping to follow it up, to make sure the people in Indiana have some access to it. I’m hoping against hope that this person is some kind of a sugar daddy who bought it for them.”
Another notable manuscript was an 1833 ship’s manifest of “negroes, mulattos, and person of color.” The large folio leaf, folded to form four pages, sold for $16,800 (est. $3000/4000) to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Part of the Smithsonian Institution, NMAAHC was established in 2003 and is always a buyer at these sales.
The document was signed by several people, including John Armfield of Franklin & Armfield. The firm, owned by Armfield and his partner, Isaac Franklin, was one of the largest slave trading operations in the antebellum South, responsible for trafficking in thousands of slaves annually from 1828 through the sale of the business in 1836. The slaves, named and described (height, weight, complexion) on the manifest, were being shipped by Armfield from the port of Alexandria, Virginia, to Franklin in New Orleans. Alexandria was the location of the firm’s headquarters and also its “slave pen.” The building today is the Freedom House Museum.
Two sales ago, a copy of a rare edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself was passed at half its low estimate of $25,000. “Everyone was asleep,” said Day. This time the volume sold to an absentee bidder for $31,200 (est. $18,000/22,000). The sheets were printed for the Boston Anti-Slavery Society’s 1847 edition. Douglass left Boston not long after that, and the sheets were bound and published in Rochester, New York, at the office of Douglass’s North Star newspaper in 1848. Day said, “We don’t know how many copies of the sheets he took with him.” This copy is one of only five known to Day, who enumerated the others in the catalog. There are two in private collections and one at the New-York Historical Society; another, described as “defective,” was listed in a dealer’s catalog not long ago.
Last year, a group of Pullman Company porter items sold to the NMAAHC for $20,400 (est. $1500/2500). At this year’s sale, there was another great collection of the same kind of material that sold for $22,800 (est. $10,000/15,000). Day said that the buyer was “a private collector who is always a major factor in my sales.” The lot included items from the 1920’s, when the African-American men who had these railroad jobs were organized as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters under the leadership of civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979). The nation’s first labor organization led by African-Americans, the brotherhood was chartered in 1925 by the American Federation of Labor.
Besides early real postcards of porters, two instructional manuals, and photographs, the lot included a porter’s white dining-car jacket; his summer cap with original brass badge; a heavy metal tray with four stainless steel vacuum bottles; a Pullman whiskey glass, deck of cards, ashtray, brush, pencils, swizzle stick, box of matches; and an original metal stepstool used by porters to help them board passengers.
Day has offered more and more material for each of his sales as the market grows, and its sometimes “bizarrely strange” (Day’s words) auction prices get publicized. If that’s how African-American history gets noticed by the general public, he won’t complain.
“Prices are important because they’re an incentive for people not to destroy things,” he said. “You really have to look at it in an inside-out way. If somebody knows that ‘this black history stuff is worth money,’ they’re less likely to put it into a dumpster.” In his office at the moment, he said, were “four fat ring-binders” from an archive of historical material that came to him from a woman from Arizona. “She’s a dumpster-diving tag-sale lady, who was driving along a street and came to a tag sale at the end of the day,” he said. “They were putting stuff out on the street for the trash men. She stopped and looked in one of these boxes and saw some mention of African-Americans. She sent the material to me.” Day said it is 18th- and 19th-century material from the George Bourne (1780-1845) family of abolitionists, and he put its value at six figures. “If this woman had not come along, it would have been destroyed.”
Day dedicated the catalog this time to Constance Porter Uzelac (1939-2012), “daughter of giants, scholar, and dear friend.” Her parents were James Amos Porter (1905-1970), a pioneering historian of African-American art, and Dorothy Louis Burnett Porter (1905-1995), who built and maintained a major library collection at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for many years. Uzelac’s stepfather was Charles Harris Wesley (1891-1987), a scholar who developed the academic discipline of African-American studies.
Until three years ago, Uzelac maintained all of their papers at the Dorothy Porter Wesley Research Center, Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Each group of archival papers subsequently sold at Swann: her mother’s went to Yale; her father’s went to Emory University; her stepfather’s, M.A.D. can now report, were acquired by Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black, intercollegiate Greek-lettered fraternity, founded at Cornell University in 1906.
For more information, contact Swann at (212) 254-4710 or see the Web site (www.swanngalleries.com).
This archive of photographs, programs, and ephemera from Laurie J. Cathrell, a Harlem Renaissance-era chorus girl, sold for $10,800 (est. $3500/5000). The lot included over 200 photographs, including three inscribed by Billie Holiday. Day said the buyer was the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest