Magazine

Tracking African Americana


Mike Glenn of Atlanta has been collecting African Americana only since 1997. But he figures it already would be tough to replicate his assemblage of photographs, artifacts, and some 2,000 rare books. "I have things that are unavailable now and that if I could find, I could never afford," says Glenn, a former pro basketball player who is now commissioner of the minor league World Basketball Assn.

Glenn isn't the only collector in the field experiencing sticker shock. Demand for these objects is soaring, in part because of the rising affluence of African Americans. Many celebrities, including Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and star Philadelphia 76ers basketball player Chris Webber (chriswebber.com), are collectors. Webber, 32, who grew up in inner-city Detroit, says he got the bug back in high school when he attended suburban Detroit Country Day School. "I met people from every ethnicity imaginable, and I saw how they took pride in their history," he says. "It wasn't racial pride. They just held their traditions close."

Also fueling demand are many white collectors as well as museums and universities that once neglected African American history. Duke, Emory, and the University of Virginia all are adding to their collections, as are historically black Fisk and Howard universities and New York City's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. "Forty years ago, African Americans couldn't walk across this campus unless they were on the janitorial staff," says Randall Burkett, curator of African American collections at Emory University in Atlanta. "We hope to build a collection that will show what a different place this is now."

18TH CENTURY RARITIES

Not surprisingly, the prices of iconic pieces are soaring. On Nov. 22 an extremely rare 1776 letter by the poet Phillis Wheatley sold for a record $253,000 at New York's Swann Auction Galleries, while a signed first edition of Wheatley's 1773 Poems on Various Subjects, the first book of poetry published by an African American, is estimated to go for $30,000 to $40,000 at Swann's annual African Americana auction scheduled for Feb. 28, up from perhaps $10,000 tops 10 years ago. Swann figures a signed first edition of the 1855 narrative by the escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass will sell for $20,000 to $25,000, vs. about $15,000 at most a decade ago. Some dealers believe both will go for far more.

Prices of more recent historical items are rising fast, too. Material from New York's Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s is hot. So is just about anything connected with boxer Muhammad Ali, Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and Martin Luther King Jr. Auction house Swann thinks a signed first edition of King's 1964 book Why We Can't Wait will fetch $8,000 to $12,000, while a cardboard placard emblazoned with the slogan "I am a Man" from King's last 1968 march in Memphis is expected to go for $700 to $1,000.

Major collectors, such as Los Angeles' Bernard Kinsey, a retired Xerox (XRX) executive, and his wife, Shirley, attempt to document the whole sweep of African American history. Among the rarities they own are a 1710 treaty between Great Britain, France, and Ireland divvying up which countries would take slaves from where. More recent material includes a letter from Malcolm X, two years before his 1965 assassination, telling co-author Alex Haley that he wanted to hurry and finish his autobiography.

Other collectors develop specialties. Bill Cleveland, a prominent Atlanta kidney doctor, has over the years obtained most of the recordings of jazz great Duke Ellington. He also has a stash of Ellington's letters as well as two huge portraits of the musician by Simmie Knox, who painted the official White House portrait of former President Bill Clinton. A network of friends alert Cleveland to choice items, such as a box of Christmas cards and other memorabilia he got for about $2,000 from one of Ellington's Washington (D.C.) neighbors. Mike Glenn has a collection of old photos, books, and other sports items documenting the forgotten accomplishments of early black athletes such as the boxer Tom Molineaux, an ex-slave who fought the English champion Tom Cribb in 1810 and 1811, and Moses Fleetwood Walker, who integrated baseball in the 1880s, decades before Jackie Robinson hit the majors in 1947.

As with any form of collecting, there are pitfalls. For instance, collecting shackles and other slavery paraphernalia is controversial because many see it as trafficking in instruments of human bondage. There's also a high risk of fakes since it's tough to determine which items were connected to slavery.

Another minefield is eBay (EBAY), especially for collectors of popular-culture items such as vintage cookie jars, figurines, and other objects that stereotype blacks. Collectors of this material have included Goldberg, NAACP Executive Chairman Julian Bond, and the late entertainer Bobby Short (check the Feb. 16 auction of Short's estate at Christie.com). There are plenty of these items on the auction site. Trouble is, says Leonard Davis, a New York fashion designer and contributor to the Black Americana Price Guide, many items are reproductions. On the plus side for purchasers, eBay has driven down the cost of the real stuff by making it easy to sell. "Someone gets $200 for an ashtray, and before you know it, 200 ashtrays show up on eBay for $50 apiece," he says.

So bone up before you buy. Reading the Swann sale catalog and attending the annual Black Memorabilia & Collectible Show and Sale in Gaithersburg, Md., on Mar. 25 are good ways to learn. Catalogs from rare book dealers, such as William Reese in New Haven, McBlain Books in Hamden, Conn., and Between the Covers Rare Books in Merchantville, N.J., are also helpful resources. Good primers on the subject include The Art and History of Black Memorabilia by Larry Buster and Collecting African American History by Elvin Montgomery.

"There are still gems out there that can be found for next to nothing," says Charles Blockson, the collector and curator at Temple University in Philadelphia who has amassed a major collection for the school. And with demand for African Americana rising, what you acquire will probably gain value over time.

By Thane Peterson


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