Purchase Story

African Americana Sells at Quinn’s

Quinn’s Auction Galleries and Waverly Rare Books, Falls Church, Virginia

Photos courtesy Quinn’s Auction Galleries
All prices include buyer’s premium

On February 22 Quinn’s Auction Galleries through its Waverly Rare Books division held a single-consignor sale at its Falls Church, Virginia, location. The Johnson collection of black Americana and ephemera consisted of 256 lots amassed over several decades by New Jersey antiques dealer Jacob Johnson. In honor of Black History Month, Quinn’s announced that the sale would benefit the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation, an organization that works to raise awareness of the contributions of African Americans and other cultures to the development of Falls Church, Virginia.

It is often difficult to understand collectors. Most of us would agree that collecting is an extremely personal pastime, and it is often a very accurate way to preserve a particular slice of history. But we often see collections that simply seem odd. For instance, there is a website where you can purchase gallstones to add to your collection. Morgue photos are easy to come by, and cartes de visite of deceased infants are readily available. My own daughter once began a collection of unused wrappers from fast food restaurants. It is true that if there are two of anything, someone will start a collection.

This little book was the high lot of the sale. The Fountain for Every Day in the Year by Lydia Maria Francis Child (1802-1880) offers daily inspirational readings and Bible verses related to the antislavery movement. This copy is a second edition, printed in 1836. Lydia Child was an early advocate for the abolition of slavery, as well as a voice for women’s rights and the rights of Native Americans. She is perhaps best known as the author of the 1844 poem “The New England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day” (now sung as “Over the river, and through the wood / to grandmother’s house we go…”). This little book sold for $1560 (est. $200/300).

Here is a large (30½" x 40½") lithographed tin sign advertising Green River brand whiskey, “The Whiskey without a Headache.” The image depicts an elderly African American man with a horse at the Green River Inn. A jug of whiskey is lashed to the saddle. The caption below reads “SHE WAS BRED IN OLD KENTUCKY.” The sign appears to be in its original frame and shows some slight toning and minor loss to the image. The lot also included two empty one-pint bottles (not shown) of “Green River Blended Whiskey…The Whiskey Without Regrets.” The lot sold for $1080 (est. $1000/2000).

The most interesting lot of the sale was a group of five scrapbooks that had been maintained by David F. Nelson, a former slave, covering the post-Civil War period 1869-92. According to reports, Nelson had, with the assistance of a Union gunboat captain, run away from his New Bern, North Carolina, owners only days before the March 1862 Battle of New Bern. He served in various capacities in the Union Navy, and at the end of the war, he made his way to New York. There he found a career with the post office. Beginning in 1869 Nelson began to clip and save news articles and other printed material that caught his interest. The scrapbooks offered reflect Nelson’s interests in current events at the close of the 19th century, as well as poetry, family correspondence, and news related to other runaway slaves. These scrapbooks of first-person memories appeared to be a bargain at $960 (est. $120/240).

One lot consisted of five pieces of theater memorabilia. Shown here is a program advertising Mr. Wonderful (1956), starring and autographed by Sammy Davis Jr. Also included but not shown were pieces related to Purlie (1970), Dreamgirls (1981), and Hello Dolly! (1975), starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, and a publicity photo of Diahann Carroll. The ephemeral lot exhibited some wear but was well received, selling for $120 (est. $80/120).

But most collectors and their collections are serious and poignant, and they frequently touch nerves as they explore areas of sensitive social consciousness. Those collections are thought-provoking and at times troubling. Civil War memorabilia, especially items associated with the Confederacy, has recently come under intense scrutiny. World War II militaria associated with Germany and Japan often raises eyebrows. And collecting racially and ethnically sensitive material is constantly a point of discussion. The Johnson collection offered a cross section of items that can be viewed on one hand as historically important and on the other as perpetuating insensitive and degrading racial stereotypes and fostering a segregationist mentality.

It is not the intention here to come down on either side of this debate but rather to accurately describe the items that were part of this particular collection. Some of the items offered and described are offensive, but they are historically accurate, and as such they are an integral part of the story.

Travel within a segregated society was a challenge for African Americans. There was a great need for information related to so-called “black friendly” establishments. That need gave rise to various travel and tour guides aimed at the African American community. One lot consisted of three such publications: Go: Guide to Pleasant Motoring / Eastern Edition (shown); American Travelers Guide to Negro History from the American Oil Company; and Black Guide / Northern Virginia Edition. The lot brought $360 (est. $100/200).

This trade card is from a lot of 18 offered at the sale. This group represented a variety of consumer goods, from Clark’s Spool Cotton to harness oil, wringer washers, and baking powder. In addition to manufactured items, the cards also show scenes that depict the African American subjects as singing, dancing, and banjo-playing stereotypical caricatures of the late 19th and early 20th century. The lot sold for $252 (est. $100/200).

The “Mammy” ceramic cookie jar is by McCoy Pottery. The figure stands 11" in overall height and features painted face, hands, and headscarf. The word “Cookies” is molded into the folds of the figure’s dress. The incised mark on the jar’s base indicates that the piece likely dates from the 1940s or 1950s. The cookie jar brought $132 (est. $60/90).

Each example in this lot of five sterling silver souvenir spoons exhibits an African American caricature. Three feature banjo players, one has an individual eating a slice of watermelon, and one has the bowl enameled as a watermelon. The lot brought $312 (est. $100/200).

The accompanying photos will speak to the range of items offered from the Johnson collection. But one question does need to be addressed: Who are the buyers of this material? My first thought was that it is likely one of two groups—individuals of all races who collect from a historical perspective, or, sadly, those who may wish to maintain the negative stereotypical caricatures presented in some of this material.

In 2010 “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” an article by Gretchen Sorin, Ph.D., was published by the Ephemera Society of America (The Ephemera Journal, Volume 13, 2010). That article centered on the 30-year history of The Negro Motorist Green-Book, a publication aimed at the African American community, providing it with information related to travel and tourism during the era of post-Depression segregation. That article touched on many of my questions raised in viewing the Johnson collection. Today, Dr. Sorin is director and distinguished professor of the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta. I contacted her with my question: Who is it today that is buying African American memorabilia?

Here is a lapel pin issued to a “GUEST” to festivities surrounding a semicentennial celebration of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The pin reads “50th ANNIVERSARY / 1863 – 1913 / OF OUR EMANCIPATION / PHILADELPHIA, PA” and features portraits of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown within a round, braided rim frame. The pendant measures 1 3/8" in diameter and the pin is 3 7/8" in overall length. This emancipation pin sold for $240 (est. $200/300).

This framed group of nine magic lantern “Gem Slides” has images by Joseph Boggs Beale depicting scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These slides are from a set of 12 created by Beale. These slides were offered with a single glass magic lantern slide (not shown) depicting an African American man operating a cotton gin. That slide was labeled from the Keystone View Company, Meadville, Pennsylvania. The slides sold for $72 (est. $40/60).


Shown are three of nine postal covers, each with an abolitionist theme imprint. All of the envelopes appeared to be from the war years. None have been used. The nine covers sold for $228 (est. $100/200).

Here is a copy of The Slave’s Friend, an abolitionist publication from the American Anti-Slavery Society. This copy is Vol. II, No. III. The book is not dated but is likely from the mid-1830s. The book consists of inspirational and thoughtful material aimed at everyone in the abolitionist community. The little book sold for $132 (est. $100/200).

Dr. Sorin acknowledged that my first assumption is likely correct, that my second assumption may have some validity, but she offered a third, more powerful collecting group for consideration—museums. Since the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., opened in 2016, some museums may view themselves as being somewhat behind the curve with their institutional collections insofar as those collections relate to African American material. The popularity of the national museum has not gone unnoticed. Curators have been evaluating their own institutions’ African American collections, or lack thereof, and may now be clamoring to acquire material to fill the voids.

We all know the old adage that nature abhors a vacuum. Couple that with the fact that whenever there is a perceived need, prices will rise. In the antiques world, whenever prices rise, reproductions and outright fakes often rush in to meet the demand. Reproductions abound within the world of African Americana. The category may rival autographed baseball cards for the proliferation of questionable material. Collectors must study and learn before they open their wallets. Two well-worn first-year Latin idioms come to mind: carpe diem and caveat emptor. Whenever there is an opportunity to seize the day, let the buyer beware.

For additional information, contact Quinn’s Auction Galleries at (703) 532-5632 or on the website (www.quinnsauction.com).

Shown here is one print from a lot of two caricature prints published by Currier & Ives, circa 1886, from the firm’s “Darktown Comics” series. This print is captioned “Draw Poker – Laying for ‘Em Sharp / See you and go three better.” It shows a poker game among four African American men, being watched by three African American policemen. The second image (not shown), “Draw Poker – Getting ‘Em Lively / Three of a kind beat two pair” shows the police raid of the card game and the ensuing beating of the card players. Each image measures 13⅛" x 17¼". The lot sold for $252 (est. $100/200).

One example of the very public nature of segregation is this restroom sign. The painted glass sign is clearly marked “Rest Rooms / White / Colored” with arrows directing individuals in opposite directions. The sign is from a Louisville & Nashville Railroad facility. The railroad operated as “L & N” from 1850 until 1971 when it was absorbed by the Seaboard system. L & N rail lines ran from Illinois southward through the central southern states. This sign measures 4" x 12" and displays the date 1929. It sold for $276 (est. $200/300).

These two 11 7/8" x 8" oval ads for Pepsi-Cola probably date from the late 1950s or early 1960s. Both pieces feature African American models along with familiar Pepsi slogans. The lot sold for $60 (est. $100/200).

Originally published in the May 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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