Swann Auction’s African Americana sale, which closed on May 7th saw a solid 89% sell-through rate for a group of 399 lots of featuring documents, letters, photographs and publications from legacies of African American history, achieving a total of $744,112, well surpassing its pre-sale low estimate of $455,900-672,900. The auction sustained high interest across its varied vintage print offerings and brought a new record price for the 1968 Memphis strike protest sign bearing the famed slogan ‘I Am A Man.’
Leading the successful sale was a 1848 reward poster for runaway slaves achieving a total of $37,500, more than five times its low estimate of $5,000. A set of images by V. Lafayette Newell, a New Hampshire photographer who gained prominence for his images of freed American slaves deemed “contraband of war” taken at the Maryland Union military base during the Civil War was featured among the top selling items. The photo album by Newell sold for $32,000, at more than 30 times its low estimate of $1,000. Among the ephemera on offer from the modern era, an edition of E. Simms Campbell’s prohibition era 1933 print, A Night-Club Map of Harlem published in Esquire achieved $27,500, more than doubling its low estimate of $10,000.
Swann’s Americana Specialist and Book Department Director, Rick Stattler noted “this was a strong auction regardless of the circumstances. “The results are nothing short of phenomenal, and a testament to Swann’s resilient and creative team.” Stattler maintained the results are reflective of a strong client base still active amid pandemic changes, adding “we completely redesigned how we conduct our auctions.”
A record was set for a dorm poster edition of the famous 1968 I Am a Man, Memphis protest slogan selling for $6,500, far surpassing a pre-sale low estimate of $500. The poster carried by Memphis sanitation workers was a collaboration between union workers and civil rights activist, used in the famous 1968 strike. The historic sign has been used by renowned contemporary artists such as Glenn Ligon, whose 1988 untitled painting of the protest slogan is now included in the collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The signifier of protest and a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement was also captured in Ernest Withers photograph of the demonstrators with Martin Luther King at center. A response prompted by the deaths of two coworkers from unsafe working conditions, the phrase at the center of the protest “I Am a Man” is a variation taken from the opening of author Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I am an invisible man.” One day after he traveled to Memphis to address the organizers of the demonstration, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Another protest poster March for Freedom Now! from the 1960 Republican Convention sold for $17,500, surpassing its pre-sale low estimate of $4,000 by three times. The poster was printed for the demonstration which comprised more than 5,000 protestors including Martin Luther King, and activists A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins. The sign was also depicted in a news photograph published in the Chicago Tribune the following day on 26 June 1960. Among the materials from seminal moments of the civil rights era which performed well was a flier produced by Arkansas segregationists to discredit leading NAACP activist and journalist, Daisy Bates, which sold for $5,000, achieving more than six times its low estimate of $800.
Among the group of printed materials on offer, were also items featuring prominent black Americans in the entertainment and sports industry. An archive of 341 photographs of renowned heavyweight boxer, Joe Louis collected by his longtime manager, Julian Black— featuring both candids and press photos of the athlete throughout his career also sold for $11,875, going for more than five times its low estimate of $2,000.
In addition to historic posters and editions from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, documents pertaining to significant abolition era figures fared well in the auction. Among the offerings was a seventh printed edition of Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 The Proclamation of Emancipation, the version available on the market in separate pamphlet sold for $11,875. A portrait of prominent abolitionist, Reverend Dr. Henry Highland Garnet—in 1865 he became the first African American citizen to deliver an address to Congress—realized a price of $15,000, at three times its low estimate.