Published: April 26, 2011
On March 10, Swann Galleries conducted its most successful sale of printed and manuscript African Americana to date. The auction totaled just under $1 million. Institutions and private collectors competed for the majority of the top lots, setting some record prices along the way.
Wyatt Houston Day, Swann’s African Americana specialist, who initiated these annual sales, said, “This auction succeeded for two very important reasons: it offered a diversity of fine and, in many cases, unique material, and it attracted a number of very knowledgeable and aggressive bidders.”
The auction’s top lot was an archive of Charles Harris Wesley’s published and unpublished writings, correspondence, photographs, albums, pamphlets and ephemera, so large it was housed in 35 cartons. Wesley was a noted historian, scholar, educator, minister and writer, a graduate of Fisk University who earned his master’s degree from Yale, his PhD from Harvard, and went on to teach at Howard University, among other esteemed institutions. He also had a long association with Alpha Phi Alpha, serving as a five-term general president and, for more than half a century, national historian of the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity for African Americans. The archive brought $43,200.
Also bringing top dollar was a large, handmade banner for Father Divine, one of the first Twentieth Century cult religious leaders, with the words “God, Righteousness, Justice, Peace, Truth” in white on heavy purple felt. It sold for $36,000, a record price for any item related to Divine.
A pen and ink portrait of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey by Robert Kastor on a sheet with a lengthy statement of purpose written and signed by Garvey achieved $31,200.
An unusual item from the slavery and abolition section of the sale was a ballast stone recovered from the wreck of a Sixteenth Century slave ship, 1570‱575, carved with the face of an elephant similar to the elephant masks of the Guro people of West Africa (now the Ivory Coast), and likely scratched into the stone by a captive during the long middle passage ($24,000).
There was also a rare broadside †one of only three known copies †published by the New England Anti-Slavery Society, 1833. Emancipator †Extra. The Abolition of Slavery sold for a record $7,800. Among material related to Frederick Douglass, a possibly unrecorded carte-de-visite portrait of the famed abolitionist showing him bearded and with graying hair, Pittsburgh, circa 1860s, realized $7,200.
The Civil Rights section included two important items related to the Scottsboro Boys trials: an official court transcript of the first trial, which may be the only existing copy, 126 mimeographed sheets, April 6, 1931, $20,400; and a group photograph of the Scottsboro Boys with their attorneys Juanita E. Jackson of the National NAACP and Laura Kellum of the Birmingham NAACP, circa January 1937, $12,000.
Items related to Martin Luther King Jr included a protest placard reading “Honor King: End Racism” that was carried through the streets of Memphis just after he was assassinated, 1968, $20,400; and a horizontal placard, I Am A Man, AFSCME, 1978, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike that hung in the offices of the Memphis branch of the union, $7,200.
Black Power items were in great demand. Several Black Panther posters set auction records, including a famous image of Huey Newton seated in a thronelike wicker chair, grasping a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other, that reads, “The racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities,” 1968, $19,200. A silkscreen image reading “Down with the White-Ness,” late 1960s, went for $18,000.
Among Malcolm X-related lots were a scarce full-sheet poster for the first Malcolm X film, Los Angeles, 1972, $16,800; and a group of four screenplays based on the activist’s life, written by James Baldwin, Arnold Perl and Calder Willingham, 1969‱970, none of which were ever made into a film, $8,400.
Also making a visual impact were a film poster promoting Bill Pickett, World’s Colored Champion, “The Bull-Dogger,” 1921, $12,000; and W. Simms Campbell’s illustration “A Night-Club Map of Harlem,” the centerfold of Manhattan Magazine’s Volume I, No 1, January 18, 1933, $16,800.
A highlight of the art section was Aaron Douglas’s unique stenciled placard for Edward A. Blatt Presents Harlem , a thrilling play of the black belt, Apollo Theatre, 1929, $18,000. And the photography section offered an extensive archive of Dr D. Michael Cheers, a protégé of photographer Gordon Parks, containing tens of thousands of prints, slides, negatives, tapes and files, $10,800.
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium. For information, 212-254-4710 or www.swanngalleries.com .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm