Published: March 2, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Cowan’s Auctions
CINCINNATI, OHIO – On February 18, Cowan’s Auctions hosted its first various owner African Americana sale that brought 278 lots of storied artifacts to the block during Black History Month. The niche category auction stood on the shoulders of two prior African Americana sales at Cowan’s that released gallerist Steve Turner’s collection in February and December, 2020. Those sales combined for nearly $1 million, while the February 18 various owner sale produced $251,369 for its 43 consignors. It had a sell-through rate of 85 percent by lot.
Senior specialist Katie Horstman said there was broad interest in the material.
“At least a quarter of the registered bidders were institutions,” she said. “We make it a priority to notify interested parties if something is related to an archive held by a museum or historical society. This sale in particular, it’s important to notify institutions to make sure they’re involved and to help build their collections.”
Material spanned mediums from photography, books, ephemera, carvings and artifacts – all culled from eras and categories that included famous Black business owners, the Civil Rights Movement, slavery and abolition, militaria including artifacts from the Buffalo Soldiers, and literary works from famous Black writers like Langston Hughes and Alain Locke.
The sale was led by a $43,750 result for an archive relating to the life of abolitionist George H. Hoyt (1837-1877), including material and testimonials gathered during his work as defense lawyer for abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) in his famed 1859 trial. In the archive was a journal with 28 pages written in Hoyt’s hand featuring the testimonials of Brown’s family and neighbors in Akron, Ohio, that Hoyt had gathered to mount an insanity defense. Brown refused this approach, resolute in his conviction as “a most determined abolitionist” who believed that violence to combat slavery was necessary. His ethos was closely related to the ignition of the American Civil War. Among the testimonials is an account from one of Brown’s neighbors, Daniel D. King, that reads in part: “…became convinced he was crazy on the subject of slavery. He was armed to the teeth & remarked ‘he was instrument in the hands of God to free the slave.'” John Brown was hanged for his actions at Harper’s Ferry after being found guilty of inciting a slave insurrection, murder and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Horstman said the archive was found in a trunk at an estate sale. It had other writings, including letters sent during Hoyt’s time serving in the Civil War, as well as a scrapbook containing clippings of media coverage on the trial.
“There was strong interest from the start on that,” Horstman said. “We thought our [$4/6,000] estimate was reasonable. I’ve been here going on 13 years, you just don’t get a lot of original manuscript material related to John Brown, the trial or his life. The content was exceptional and anyone that read the description was wowed. It was such a landmark moment and he was such an important figure.”
Horstman said it sold to a private collector.
At $13,750 was a sixth plate daguerreotype of Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1809-1876), the first and seventh president of Liberia. At 20 years old, Roberts departed St Petersburg, Va., for Liberia along with many members of his family. While the colony was still under the general authority of the American Colonization Society, he was appointed the first African American to serve as Governor of Liberia (1841-1847) and then its first president in 1848.
“This is the third known image of Roberts,” Horstman said. “And this is probably the earliest known of him.”
The house believed this example dated to the 1840s when Roberts gained political power. Both other photographic images are in the Library of Congress. “To have an image like that in our inaugural auction was exciting,” Horstman said.
Another lot that rose on the strength of its image was a watercolor by Maria Howard Weeden (1847-1905) featuring an elderly African American gentleman thought to be Uncle Remus. The portrait, 5 by 6¾ inches, sold for $8,960. Based in Huntsville, Ala., Weeden became known for her portraits of African American freedmen and freedwomen. She studied with painter William Frye and felt her images should display the dignity and humanity of these people, as opposed to the caricature images that proliferated during this period.
A number of items from Atlanta collector Eric Majette Jr were from the Madam CJ Walker Company, a cosmetics firm founded by Walker that would earn her recognition as the first female self-made millionaire in America. Top among them was $9,375 paid for a sales representative badge made by the Bastian Brothers Company in Rochester, N.Y. Earning $1,875 was a beauty textbook, The Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Manual: A thorough Treatise Covering All Branches of Beauty Culture, third edition. These were for use in the firm’s schools and this example had annotations throughout made by a student.
The Civil Rights era featured prominently throughout the sale. Selling for $8,960 to an institution was a Black Panther Party carved rally stick featuring an entwined snake up the shaft and terminating with a Black Power fist. Circa 1965, the consignor had purchased it from a family that said it belonged to James Johnson, a member of the Black Panthers in the 1960s who attended the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and speeches delivered by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The lot also featured ephemeral lots related to the Black Panthers with the same history, including photographs, buttons, flyers and an afro comb carved with a peace sign and a Black Power fist.
Literary works were led by a $5,000 result for two volumes of Marcus Garvey’s Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, the first edition of volume one and the second edition of volume two. Garvey was a polarizing figure who advocated a Back-To-Africa movement through his philosophy of Garveyism, which envisioned a unified one-party state on the continent with him as its leader and an end to colonial rule. The sale featured pieces from Garvey’s famed Black Star Line, a shipping line established in 1919 that aimed to fuel a Black economy of goods as well as transport people back to Africa. It was closed in 1922 after Garvey was convicted of mail fraud. A stock certificate from the company sold for $1,000, while more tangible artifacts from the cruise line – a spoon, cigar collar, letter opener and ceramic smoke stack – went unsold.
Horstman said she found an Eighteenth Century engraved print by La Citoyenne Rollet, a French female printmaker, to be of particular interest.
“The subject matter is uncomfortable, but we found it was an interesting subject by a female printmaker,” she said. “We’ve seen it once before here at Cowan’s, in a different edition. This did very well, it drew a lot of interest.”
The print was done after George Morland’s 1788 painting “The Execreble Human Traffic,” its subject focusing on an African family being brutally separated by European slave traders. Text beneath the image reads “What an infamous contract. One bargains for a person who belongs to no one, the other sells what belongs to nature. This vile trade was abolished by the National Convention on the 16th Pluviose of the 2nd year of a united and indivisible French Republic.” The print brought $1,063.
In Buffalo Soldier artifacts came a $2,880 result for a full dress uniform coat with breast cord and cap from Company E of the 24th US Infantry, issued in 1902. Company E was one of the four Buffalo Soldier regiments formed in 1869. At $2,813 was a lot of two cabinet cards, both soldiers from the 10th US Cavalry. One of the soldiers, who was identified on the back as Private Raleigh B. Hess(?), taken at Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory, stood proud next to his dog.
With the growing market for African Americana, the firm hopes to work with collectors of this material to bring it to market. Horstman said that the scarcity of the material may prove difficult to have two sales a year, but she was confident that the firm will be back with another edition next February at the latest.
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium. For information, www.cowansauctions.com or 513-871-1670.
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