Focus on Women

It’s important that women’s stories are passed on and not lost, says Swann Galleries’ Devon Eastland
Courtesy of Swann Auctions

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, her copies of books, with some family photos and other material. Estimate $4,000 to $6,000.

Swann Galleries’ May 23 Focus on Women sale is really a story about stories.

It marks the fifth in the series since the New York-based auction house launched its successful inaugural sale in July 2021, offering along the way everything from letters written by the young wife of a Massachusetts ship captain revealing a woman’s experience aboard a whaling ship in the South Pacific in the 1840s, to an autograph letter signed by Louisa May Alcott describing her creation Jo March.

Devon Eastland, Senior Specialist for early printed books and curator of the sale at Swann, is still as enthusiastic about the way this dedicated auction continues to showcase the contributions of women to art, life, and society.

“I’m super excited,” she says. “So many people live extraordinary lives which for one reason or another we don’t get to hear about. This is why I love this sale so much. It’s about getting the right records to the right places and the right people.”

One of the most intriguing items is the archive of American physician Lora Genevieve Dyer. She graduated from Smith College, Massachusetts, in 1906, before studying at medical college in Philadelphia. Then she moved in 1916 to Fooshaw in China’s Fujian province, just as the city was about to build a brick hospital, in order to provide obstetrics and gynaecology services to local women and help with their general health and wellbeing. She learned Chinese and stayed until the 1940s.

“She never married or had children,” explains Devon, “and so her archive of journals, letters, photographs of people she worked with as well as patients has reached its last family heir. There are boxes and boxes of remarkable ephemera here, including greeting cards from people she helped and photo albums of her travels in the region, including a trip to Japan.

Courtesy of Swann Auctions

An archive of Dr. Lora Genevieve Dyer’s time in China and the Philippine Islands, 1880-1969. Estimate $5,000 to $7,000.

“You can virtually reconstruct her daily life from her journals and letters which give a real picture of her activities. It’s almost a kind of time travel and the only way to appreciate her life’s work. It’s important that this archive gets passed on and that her story is not lost.”

Other important sections include a significant emphasis on Charlotte Perkins Gilman which follows on from the partial sale of a family archive of photographs and letters in last year’s iteration of the Focus on Woman series (which realized well beyond the high estimate to make $60,000), including her own copies of books, journals, and photographs. “She wrote in so many genres so this is a really significant element in the auction,” says Devon. “I’m just very happy to be able to play a part in elevating the importance of this material and the woman who created it. These women’s stories and impact need to be prized.”

Also going under the hammer alongside a diverse collection of books, photographs, and art, is a limited edition set of all Stephen Shames’ photos which appear in the 2022 photobook, Comrade Sisters. Women of the Black Panther Party by Ericka Huggins. “Women’s participation in the movement is not well known,” says Devon. “It’s a bit of a jump, but it’s a story I’m happy to promote. I don’t mind taking a risk for an important story. I want Focus on Women to keep growing.”