Dallas—Heritage Auctions will present its first sale dedicated exclusively to African Americana on Jan. 15: “Say It Loud,” The John Silverstein Collection of African American Social History. The auction includes a thoughtful and carefully curated selection of items that tell the sweeping story of the trials and triumphs of black life in America.
The Silverstein Collection “is the most comprehensive and voluminous collection of photographs and related materials of its kind ever to be offered for sale at public auction in North America,” writes Cheryl Finley, an Associate Professor Art History at Cornell University. “It is distinguished by its historical breadth, spanning the 19th century daguerreotype to the early 21st century digital prints, and its attention to black life in America through the lens of social political activism, especially of the 1960s and 1970s.”
The collection as a whole provides a panoramic overview of the black experience, ranging from slavery to emancipation and reconstruction, the decades-long struggle for equal rights, and the aspirations and achievements and of African Americans in politics, the military, the arts, literature, film, sports and much more.
A lifelong collector, Silverstein formed the collection over a 10-year period. His pursuit of the artifacts and objects being offered for sale combined his deep interest in history with his belief that social justice is the most relevant theme of our historic moment. “The result,” says Finley, “is a treasure trove ripe with rare and iconic photographs, albums, posters, books and documents that tell the story of why African American social and cultural history is so vital, especially today.”
As nationally prominent collector, dealer and appraiser Wyatt Houston Day has written:
“The Social History of the African American diaspora is rich, nuanced and complex. In its deepest and enduring roots, it is a chronicle of suffering and loss; one of righteous anger, defiance and a continuing struggle for justice. It is also a story of hope, aspiration and compassion.” The collection weaves a story told in equal detail by the instantly recognizable faces of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali, as it is by the unknown and unnamed personages who posed in photographers’ studios in their desire to have their everyday lives documented.
The sale includes more than 380 lots, many of which are rare or of unusual scarcity, and many appearing at auction for the first time.
Of note among the 19th century photographs is an unprecedented appearance at auction of a group of four small-format photographs, known as “cartes de visite” (CDV), portraying the great orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. Particularly significant among these is the photo of Douglass taken by the Cincinnati-based African American photographer, James Pressley Ball, one of only a small handful of black photographers active anywhere in 19th-century America.
Another 19th century standout is a CDV of the brutally scarred back of Private Gordon, an illustration of which was published in a July 1863 article about Gordon in Harper’s Weekly, the most widely read journal during the Civil War. The image of Gordon's mutilated back provided Northerners with evidence of the brutal treatment of slaves and inspired many free blacks to enlist in the Union Army.
A highlight of the 20th century photographic section of the sale is the lifetime James Van Der Zee portfolio of 18 signed and editioned photos published in 1974. Included in this group is Van Der Zee’s most famous photo, Couple In Raccoon Coats.
An important photograph also on the auction block is a large-format example of Ernest Withers’ best-know image, “I Am A Man”, depicting the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis at the time of his assassination in support of the striking workers.
A major component of the collection is on the Civil Rights and Social Protest movements of the 1960s and 70s. Included in the sale is a massive accumulation of more than 450 press photographs, divided up into several lots, covering the major Civil Rights, School Integration, Race Riots and other Black Activist events of the era.
Perhaps the most familiar civil rights era photo, captured at the time by Associated Press photographer Bill Hudson, is of the German shepherd dog attacking teen-aged Walter Gadsen in Birmingham, Alabama on May 3, 1963. The publication of this photo the next day on the front page of The New York Times stirred national outrage and did much to sway public opinion on the Civil Rights movement.
Of tragic prominence among the many other well-documented images in this press photo archive is a select group of four photographs, taken by Joseph Louw, of the moments leading up to and after the assassin’s bullet hit Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 3, 1968 as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Individual photographs depicting black life by such acclaimed 20th century photographers, both black and white, as P.J. Polk, Ernest Withers, Robert Sengstacke and Robert Haggins; Kamoinge Workshop photographers Anthony Barboza, Mikki Ferrell and Shawn Walker; Jazz Photographers William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Ted Williams, Chuck Stewart, and many others, are also included in the sale.
“Without a doubt,” Finley says, “the most remarkable aspect of the Silverstein Collection is in its unparalleled emphasis on the activities, leaders and artistic production of the Black Panthers.”
A true rarity in this group, and only the second example ever to be offered at auction, is the first poster to use an image of a stalking black panther with text reading “Move On Over Or We’ll Move On Over You”. The poster was created for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) circa 1966 to promote the voter registration campaign in Lowndes County, Alabama. When the Black Panther Party of Self-Defense was officially founded in Oakland, California, the next year it, adopted the animal as its symbol.
Of equal, if not greater scarcity, and possibly the only known example, is a group of 14 black and white crime scene photographs, taken by the Chicago Tribune, along with another four color photos, of the apartment where Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was murdered on Dec. 4, 1969 in his bed by the Chicago police. These are gruesome images and not for the faint of heart, but of utmost social significance.
Also of note in this section are the more than 100 copies of The Black Panther newspaper; the largest representation of posters designed by Emory Douglas ever to be offered in a single sale; and the finest collection of posters and other ephemera representing the trial of Angela Davis and the national and global campaign to win her freedom.
And, of course, also included in the sale is the best known Black Panther poster of all from 1968, showing Black Panthers Minister of Defense Huey Newton seated on a wicker throne with a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other.
Additional highlights of the sale include:
· A selection of more than 25 “all-colored-cast” movie posters, including the most difficult to find in the collecting field, the one-sheet poster for The Bull Dogger, a silent western made in 1921 starring cowboy actor Bill Pickett
· Flip Schulke’s dazzling 1961 image (printed later) of “Ali Underwater”
· One the most iconic images in sports history, Neil Leifer’s color photograph of Team USA members Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ defiant black power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City
· SNCC and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) posters from the mid-1960s with photos by Danny Lyon and Bob Adelman that were used to generate awareness of the Voter Registration movement in the deep South
· A circa 1940s-50s enameled metal box-office sign for Negro League baseball
· A painted metal sign for the Booker T. Motel in Humboldt, Tenn., advertising accommodations for African American travelers in the 1940s and ‘50s deep South. This is the kind of hotel that the Don Shirley character in the current film, The Green Book, would have had to stay in
“Say it Loud” The John Silverstein Collection of African American Social History is presented in two sessions Tuesday, Jan. 15. A grand format floor session begins at 11 a.m. Central time and an internet-only session starts at 4 p.m. Central time on HA.com.