News | April 4, 2023

Carte-de-visite Tops Record $1.3m Swann Sale

Swann Galleries

 James Presley Ball carte-de-visite, 1870

Swann’s annual Printed & Manuscript African Americana auction was the most successful in its 28-year history. The sale set records with $1,377,463 in total sales and a 94% sell-through rate. It was the third largest sale in the history of the house’s book department behind only two noted single-owner sales, the Epstein sale of 1992 and the Ford sale of 2012.  

One notable feature of the auction on March 30 was the very strong bidding from institutional buyers. At least 105 lots were sold to 29 different institutions, in addition to numerous lots bought for institutions through private agents. “Numerous libraries, archives, and museums across the country are making up for lost time by increasing their representation of Black history,” noted Rick Stattler, director of books and manuscripts and specialist for the sale.

The top lot in the sale was an inscribed carte-de-visite by the important early photographer James Presley Ball which brought $125,000. Only one other photograph of Ball is known to exist. A signed 1862 essay by the white abolitionist Portia Gage brought $8,000; it had been acquired from another auction house in 2003 for $345.

Items relating to slavery and abolition included an archive of letters from Richmond slave dealers, found an institutional home at $50,000, and the papers of abolitionist Theodore Bourne which included the minutes of the African Civilization Society reached $17,500.

The Civil War was well represented with an extremely scarce and important photograph of Black recruits at Camp William Penn, which brought $52,500; an ambrotype of a Black Confederate valet which earned $17,500; and a full-length profile portrait of a Union cavalryman at $11,250. Two diaries kept by white officers saw success: Capt. Joshua Addeman of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery sold for $14,375, and surgeon Lincoln Ripley Stone of the legendary 54th Massachusetts Infantry reached $50,000. Other highlights included:

  • Archive of letters from the sculptor Richmond Barthé to Easton Lee, renowned Jamaican playwright, minister, and media personality, 1966-85. Sold for $50,000
  • Wallace Thurman, Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists, New York, 1926. Sold for $32,500
  • Papers of pianist-composer Lawrence Brown relating to Paul Robeson and more, 1925-54. Sold for $27,500
  • Richard Wright, annotated typescript of his adaption of Daddy Goodness, circa 1958. Sold for $27,500.

In arts and literature, the lone issue of the scarce and important magazine Fire!! sold for $32,500, and an archive of warm personal letters from sculptor Richmond Barthé brought $50,000. Papers of pianist-composer Lawrence Brown and an annotated typescript of Richard Wright’s adaption of Daddy Goodness earned $27,500 apiece.

Material relating to Black-owned businesses found success among buyers with a small archive of the Eggleston Hotel that brought $13,750 and a catalogue of Color-Tone Christmas cards $10,000. Other highlights included:

  • McPherson & Oliver, The Scourged Back, albumen photograph, circa 1863. Sold for $75,000
  • Victor H. Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book, New York, 1949. Sold for $50,000
  • The Black Panther: Black Community News Service, 80 issues, San Francisco, 1968-73. Sold for $20,000

Among the notable records, each of which had been previously held by Swann, the famed McPherson & Oliver carte-de-visite The Scourged Back brought $75,000; Charles White’s Six Drawings portfolio of prints brought $5,000; an unusually large run of 80 issues of the Black Panther newspaper The Black Panther: Black Community News Service reached $20,000; and a 1949 issue of the Negro Motorist Green Book brought $50,000, shattering the previous record of $27,500.