Published: April 5, 2022
Review by W.A. Demers, Photos Courtesy Swann Galleries
NEW YORK CITY – Swann Galleries’ March 24 sale of printed manuscript and African Americana featured important material from slavery through the civil rights era and into the current period, as well as noteworthy literature and music, including iconic cornerstone pieces such as Benjamin Banneker’s first almanac from 1792. The sale total was $1,219,882, one of the top ten sales from Swann’s book department of all time. The sale had a 94 percent sell-through rate by lot with 360 of the 384 lots on offer finding buyers.
Reaching $75,000, triple its high estimate, Banneker’s scarce first almanac begins with an endorsement by James McHenry, one of the signers of the Constitution: “Benjamin Banneker, a free Negro, has calculated an Almanack, for the ensuing year…. His father was an African, and his mother the offspring of African parents…. Whatever merit is attached to his present performance, is exclusively and peculiarly his own…. I consider this Negro as a fresh proof that the powers of the mind are disconnected with the colour of the skin…. I cannot but wish, on this occasion, to see the Public patronage keep pace with my black friend’s merit.”
A surprise in the military category came with an 1864 carte de visite (CDV) of Charles Remond Douglass (1844-1920) in uniform taken shortly before his regiment departed for the front, which broke through a $3/4,000 estimate to claim $47,500. The albumen photograph, measuring 3¼ by 2 inches on original photographer’s mount was inscribed on verso “Charles R. Douglass 1st Serg’t Co. I, 5th Mass Cav., May 3, 1864.” Douglass (1844-1920) was the youngest son of Frederick Douglass. He enlisted with the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment but was unable to deploy due to illness. He then joined the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry and reached the rank of sergeant before his discharge. He went on to a long career of government service in the freedman’s and pension bureaus, also serving in the District of Columbia National Guard.
Frederick Douglass himself was represented in the sale by a John White Hurn albumen CDV portrait that sold for $8,750. The 3½-by-2¼-inch image on a contemporary plain lined mount bore a manuscript caption reading “Fred Douglas” on the lower mount. According to catalog notes, this photograph was likely taken of Douglass on March 10, 1873. He was then publishing his final newspaper, the New National Era, and had recently relocated to Washington. That day he was in Philadelphia to lecture at the Academy of Music. Four blocks away was the studio of an old ally, John White Hurn, an ardent abolitionist and Douglass supporter.
Bid to $42,500 against a $10/15,000 estimate was an archive of the slave-owning Randolph family of Virginia. The lot totaled approximately 100 manuscript letters and documents in five binders and ranged from 1796 to 1865, with the bulk from 1833-1865. Revealed are David Coupland Randolph (1804-1886), who came from an elite Virginia family, and his father Isham Randolph (1771-1844), a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson. A large portion of this archive relates to the family’s enslaved people in Richmond and Buckingham County, Va. David Randolph inherited the slaves as the primary heir, the catalog noted, but was required to buy out the interest of his sisters. This seems to have left him short of cash, and the enslaved people were often hired out by the month or year, right through the final months of the Confederacy. The collection contains at least 12 documents relating to enslaved people, including receipts for their sale, hire or taxation from 1796 to 1860. An 1858 receipt from Sidnum Grady, keeper of Richmond’s Cary Street Jail, takes commission for the sale of “girl Mary Thomas” with deductions for 32 days board, “to having teeth cleaned 50 cents & soap 10 cents.”
Photographers McPherson and Oliver’s disturbing image, “The Scourged Back,” one of the most iconic images of slavery, realized $32,500. After repeated beating and whippings at a Louisiana plantation, Gordon escaped from slavery and made his way to a Union camp at Baton Rouge, where he joined the army as a private. A camp photographer took a series of photographs that graphically demonstrated the brutality he had endured. The photograph was engraved for the July 4, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly, where it ran over the caption “Gordon Under Medical Inspection.”
Highlights in the entertainment category included a 1911 original copy of Scott Joplin’s score for “Treemonisha: Opera in Three Acts.” Estimated just $4/6,000, it found a buyer at $40,000; while an archive of Dizzy Gillespie’s personal music and arrangements, 1970s-1980s, comprising several hundred pages of manuscript music in various hands plus other papers and nine books in a separate box, was similarly conservatively estimated at $6/9,000 but earned $32,500. A substantial archive of Louis Armstrong, with material dating from 1950 to 1970, including signed contracts and travel itineraries surpassed its $6/9,000 expectation to bring $30,000.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.swanngalleries.com or 212-254-4710.
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