PROTESTING POOR WORKING CONDITIONS, Memphis sanitation workers walked off their jobs in February 1968. More than 1,300 black men went on strike. Carrying signs that declared “I Am A Man,” they demanded recognition of their union, better wages, and improved safety standards. Two months later, Martin Luther King Jr., went to Memphis to support their cause, delivering his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. The next day, April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

 


Lot 280: “I Am a Man, Memphis,” 1968 (poster, 28 x 22 inches), Emerson Graphics, San Francisco, Calif. | Estimate $500-$750. Sold for $6,500 fees included ($5,200 hammer price). RECORD

 

The graphic, text-based “I Am A Man” posters have inspired works by contemporary artists Glenn Ligon, Dread Scott, and Hank Willis Thomas. The phrase the workers chose to symbolize their plight and affirm their dignity and humanity is associated with Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” A variant of the phrase appears in the opening lines of the prologue to the 1952 novel.

A replica of the protest posters was sold last week at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City. “I Am A Man, Memphis” (1968), a dorm poster with red lettering printed by Emerson Graphics in San Francisco, sold for a record $6,500, about 10 times more than the estimate ($500-$750).

Originally scheduled for March 26, Swann’s Printed & Manuscript African Americana sale was held May 7. The “I Am A Man, Memphis” poster was among the top lots in the sale (No. 17) and the price was a record for the item, according to Swann.

The auction was the first conducted by Swann since it closed to the public in March and paused its schedule in the wake of the COVID-19 virus (similar to other U.S. auction houses that hold in-person sales). The auction featured rare African American books, photographs, and posters; historic documents, archives, pamphlets, and brochures; as well as art-related ephemera.

The auction featured rare African American books, photographs, and posters; historic documents, archives, pamphlets, and brochures; as well as art-related ephemera.

Conducted live online, 399 lots were offered. Reception was mixed. Many lots exceeded expectations while others attracted lukewarm interest. Record prices were achieved for 13 lots, items related to slavery, segregation, and the Black Panther Party, among other categories.

In addition to the record-setting “I Am A Man” lot, new benchmarks were reached for a 1933 Harlem Night-Club Map by E. Simms Campbell published in the magazine, “Manhattan: A Weekly for Wakeful New Yorkers”; 44 issues of The Black Panther newspaper dated 1967-1971; a metal circa 1950s Colored Waiting Room sign; and a circa 1963 SNCC poster photographed by Danny Lyon.

Six boxes containing the papers of comedian Nipsey Russell dating from 1929-2000, nearly doubled expectations selling for $17,500. A 36-page Afro Travel Guide published by the Afro American Newspapers in 1957 brought more than 20 times the estimate ($800-$1,200) selling for $27,500.

Bidders were able to participate in the sale via online platforms such as Live Auctioneers, Invaluable, and Swann’s app. Order bids could also be placed in advance of the sale through Swann’s website or directly with a Swann representative. A limited amount of phone bidding was also available. There was no preview exhibition in the days leading up to the sale, nor were bidders able to attend the auction in Swann’s salesroom. The entire auction was conducted remotely.


Lot 90: HENRY ROCHER, photographer, “Carte-de-visite portrait of the sculptor Edmonia Lewis,” circa 1866-71 (albumen photograph, 3 1/2 x 2 inches, on original mount with photographer’s backmark), Chicago, Ill. | Estimate $3,000-$4,000. Sold for $5,250 fees included ($4,200 Hammer price)

 


Lot 94: Pair of early Harmon Foundation catalogs, 1931 and 1935 (each 8 x 5 inches, original wrappers, numerous illustrations, 48 pages and 60 pages, respectively), New York. | Estimate $400-$600. Sold for $562 fees included ($450 hammer price)

 

A FEW DOZEN LOTS were art-related. A circa 1866-71 carte-de-visite portrait of sculptor Edmonia Lewis by Chicago photographer Henry Roche sold for $5,250, surpassing the estimate ($3,000-$4,000). Two Harmon Foundation catalogs, dated 1931 and 1935, sold for $562. An archive of 21 items related to Romare Bearden, including letters written on his personalized stationery, postcards, and greeting cards the artist sent to Harry Henderson, his friend and co-author, garnered $4,750, falling below the estimate ($5,000-$7,500).

Highlights also included posters advertising historic exhibitions mounted in the early 1970s at the height of the Black Arts Movement. After the artist collective AfriCOBRA presented its first show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, “Africobra 1: Ten in Search of a Nation” traveled to the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston. Featuring a map of Africa overlaid with images of the artists’s work, the double-sided poster promoting the 1970 exhibition sold for $3,000.

Highlights also included posters advertising historic exhibitions mounted in the early 1970s at the height of the Black Arts Movement.

In New York City, black artists and women artists were taking a stand and raising their voices about the lack of access at mainstream museums in terms of exhibitions and representation in collections. “Head of an Invisible King,” a wire sculpture by James Denmark, appears on the poster for the 1971 show “Rebuttal to Whitney Museum Exhibition…Black Artists in Rebuttal,” which sold for $1,560.

The rebuttal show was organized the Black Emergency Culture Coalition (BECC) as counter programming to the Whitney exhibition “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” which grew out of negotiations with the BECC. Co-chaired by Benny Andrews and Clifford Joseph, founding members of BECC also included Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Henri Ghent, among others.

The group was dissatisfied with the show that eventually developed, primarily because a black curator was not hired to work directly on the exhibition. (Robert Doty, a white curator on the museum’s staff, organized the exhibition.) As a result, a contingent of artists withdrew their work from the Whitney show and staged “Rebuttal to Whitney Museum Exhibition…Black Artists in Rebuttal” at Acts of Art Gallery.

Another poster, advertising “Cookin’ and Smokin’: Where We At, Black Women Artists, 1972,” which was held at Weusi – Nyumba Ya Sanaa Gallery in Harlem, sold for $625. The Where We At collective was founded by artists Dinga McCannon, Faith Ringgold, and Kay Brown. The poster was among the works presented in “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” the exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum in 2017.

 


Lot 104: AFRICOBRA, “Africobra 1: Ten in Search of a Nation,” 13 September 1970 (double-sided poster, 22 x 17 inches), Chicago, W J Studios and Gallery. | Estimate $800-$1,200. Sold for $3,000 fees included ($2,400 hammer price)

 


Lot 91: GRAFTON TYLER BROWN, Map of the Lower Comstock and Emigrant Consolidated Mining Cos. Mines, Lyon Co., Nevada, 1873 (color lithograph, 8 1/2 x 16 1/4 inches). | Estimate $300-$400. Sold for $688 fees included ($550 hammer price)

 

OTHER ART-RELATED LOTS included a Nevada mining company map by lithographer Grafton Taylor Brown dated 1973 ($688); a first edition copy of the 1927 book “Negro Drawings” by Miguel Covarrubias ($1,625); and a small archive of items related to Kentucky sculptor and ceramic artist Isaac Scott Hathaway (1872-1967), which sold for $5,250, well above the estimate ($2,000-$3,000).

Campbell was the first black illustrator to have his cartoons appear regularly in national publications (ex. Esquire, 1933-late 1950s). His “A Night-Club Map of Harlem” was among the top lots (No. 3) in the auction. The illustrated map highlighting the locations of the Cotton Club, Savoy Ballroom, and Small’s Paradise, among many other uptown hotspots, sold for $27,500 (including fees) against an estimate of $10,000-$15,000.

The map was featured in the inaugural edition of “Manhattan: A Weekly for Wakeful New Yorkers” magazine, published Jan. 18, 1933. The record-setting lot is an unbound copy of the 16-page publication with the map printed on pages 8 and 9. According to Swann, an unnamed institution purchased the map.

In 2016, the original artwork for Campbell’s nightclub map sold at Swann for $100,000 and was acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.

The sales total for the Printed & Manuscript African Americana auction was $741,581, surpassing the estimate of $455,900-$672,900. There were 399 lots offered and 356 sold, yielding an 89 percent sell-through rate by lot.

Despite the sale being postponed and conducted remotely and primarily online, the results nearly replicated last year’s African Americana auction. Held on March 28, 2019, the sales results totaled $780,205 against an estimate of $438,000-$657,950, and the sell-through rate was 90 percent, with 361 of the 402 lots finding buyers.

The outcome is promising news as art businesses and cultural institutions figure out how to navigate the way forward in the era of COVID-19, which remains challenging on nearly every front. CT

 

UPDATE (05/11/20): Swann’s African-American Fine Art sale, originally planned for April 2, has been rescheduled on Thursday, June 4 at 1:00 p.m. ET

 


Lot 345: E. SIMMS CAMPBELL, “A Night-Club Map of Harlem,” 18 January 1933 (featured in inaugural issue of “Manhattan: A Weekly for Wakeful New Yorkers,” 16 pages, 16 x 12 inches, on 4 unbound folding sheets, with the map appearing as pages 8 and 9 of the 16 x 24-inch centerfold spread, with original 8 x 8 illustrated wrapper printed in blue and black). | Estimate $10,000-$15,000. Sold for $27,500 fees included ($22,000 hammer price). RECORD

 


Lot 108: “Cookin’ and Smokin’: Where We At, Black Women Artists,” 2 January 1972 (poster, 14 x 10 3/4 inches), New York. | Estimate $600-$900. Sold for $625 fees included (hammer price $500)

 


Lot 106: JAMES DENMARK, “Rebuttal to Whitney Museum Exhibition…Black Artists in Rebuttal, 6 April 1971 (poster, 27 x 20 inches, on laid paper), Acts of Art Gallery, New York. | Estimate $800-$1,200. Sold for $1,560 fees included ($1,200 hammer price)

 


Lot 187: Two items from American Negro Exposition held in Chicago, 1940 (photograph and pamphlet, various sizes and conditions), Chicago, 1940. | Estimate $400-$600. Sold for $812 fees included ($650 hammer price)

 


Lot 97: ROY LAGRONE, “The Tenement Lovers,” Summer 1948 (oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 15 1/2 inches, framed 25 x 20 1/2 inches). | Estimate $1,000-$1,500. Sold for $2,000 fees included ($1,600 hammer price)

 


Lot 89: ADGER W. COWANS, “So We To.,” 1986 (poster, 34 1/2 x 23 inches). | Estimate $500-$750. Sold for $1,000 fees included ($800 hammer price)

 


Lot 122: EMORY DOUGLAS, “Wherever death may surprise us, it will be welcome…,” circa 1968 (black-and-white poster, 16 3/4 x 21 3/4 inches), San Francisco. | Estimate $400-$600. Sold for $2,125 fees included ($1,700 hammer price). RECORD

 



Lot 223: HERMAN “KOFI” BAILEY, “Poor People’s Campaign 1968, SCLC,” 1968 (offset poster, 16 1/2 x 11 inches), Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta. | Estimate $500-$750. Sold for $1,250 fees included ($1,000 hammer price)

 


Lot 111: Naturally ’63 Portfolio, 1963 (a program issued by the Grandassa Models, 20 pages, 11 x 8 1/2 inches, original black-on-yellow illustrated wrappers), Black Standard Publishing Company, New York. | Estimate $1,000-$1,500. UNSOLD

 


Lot 92: MIGUEL COVARRUBIAS, “Negro Drawings” book, First edition, trade issue, 1927 (57 plates, many in color. [26] pages. 4to, publisher’s cloth gilt, illustrated dust jacket), Knopf, New York. | Estimate $500-$750 fees included. Sold for $1,625 fees included ($1,300 hammer price)

 


Lot 254: Playbill for a performance of Othello signed by its star, Paul Robeson (32 pages, original illustrated wrappers), New York, 13 February 1944. | Estimate: $300-$400. Sold for $ 2,125 fees included (hammer price $1,700)

 


Lot 98: ISAAC HATHAWAY, Archive of Kentucky sculptor, including a plaster mold for his bust of Booker T. Washington, Vp, 1892-1962 and undated (54 items, various sizes and conditions). | Estimate $2,000-$3,000Price. Sold for $5,250 fees included ($4,200 hammer price)

 


Lot 205: March for Freedom Now! Poster, July 1960 (light board, 28 x 22 inches), Chicago, Ill. | Estimate $4,000-$6,000. Sold for $17,500 fees included ($14,000 hammer price)

 


Lot 101: VARIOUS ARTISTS, Group of 3 portraits of artist Loïs Mailou Jones, 1951, 1955 and undated (various mediums and sizes). | Estimate $600-$900. Sold for $ 1,250 fees included ($1,000 hammer price)

 


Lot 191: 17th Year, Afro-American’s Travel Guide, 1957 (printed pamphlet, 36 pages, 9 1/4 x 4 1/4 inches), Travel Bureau, Afro-American Newspapers, Baltimore. | Estimate $800-$1,200. Sold for $27,500 fees included ($22,000 hammer price)

 


Lot 372: CORITA KENT, Shirley Chisholm: Unbossed and Unbought, 1972 (poster on board, 22 x 17 inches, inked Langston Hughes copyright stamp). | Estimate $800-$1,200. Sold for $2,500 fees included ($2,000 hammer price)

 


Lot 103: ROMARE BEARDEN, Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by the artist Romare Bearden to co-author Harry Henderson, 1949-1987 (21 items in one folder). | Estimate: $5,000-$7,500. Sold for $4,750 fees included ($3,800 hammer price)

 

BOOKSHELF
A brand new volume, “AFRICOBRA: Experimental Art toward a School of Thought” by Wadsworth Jarrell, was published this month. Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson co-authored “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present” and “6 Black Masters of American Art.” Emory Douglas served as the Black Panther Party’s minister of culture and art director of the organization’s newspaper. “Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas” explores the activist artist’s work. “The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones” documents the practice of Lois Mailou Jones. “Designing a New Tradition: Loïs Mailou Jones and the Aesthetics of Blackness” is forthcoming in October 2020. “Glenn Ligon: America” accompanied a 25-year survey of the artist’s practice and “Glenn Ligon: Untitled (America)/Debris Field/Synecdoche/Notes for a Poem on the Third World” was released earlier this year. Recently published, “Art in the Moment: Life and Times of Adger Cowans” and the monograph “Personal Vision: Photographs” document the work of photographer Adger Cowans, a member of the New York collective Kamoinge, was recently published.

 

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