Final Studio Portrait of Harriet Tubman Led African Americana Auction
Chicago — Part one of a planned two-part sale of one of the best private collections of African Americana to come to market in recent memory sold at Cowan’s, a Hindman Company, on February 20, 2020 for a combined $612,691. The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana illustrated the history of African Americans and their role in settling the western frontier in the 19th and early 20th century.
“We were delighted to offer this important collection, and gratified at the response from both private and institutional collectors,” said Wes Cowan, Vice Chairman of Hindman Auctions. “The ephemeral material in the Turner collection is important, direct evidence of the struggles and triumphs of African Americans on their post-Civil War march to full citizenship.”
Steve Turner is perhaps most widely known for his eponymous Los Angeles-based contemporary art gallery but he has spent his entire life assembling an unrivaled historical record of the American west.
“I thoroughly enjoyed building this collection over the last twenty-five years and I am gratified that other collectors and institutions found the material significant enough to acquire,” said Turner. “I'm looking forward to the second sale of equally important material later this year.”
The enthusiasm for the collection was apparent from the start as the first lot, one of the last studio photographs of Harriet Tubman (ca 1822-1913), soared past its estimate of $10,000 selling for $51,250.
“I’m privileged to have had the opportunity to research and work so closely with all of these objects, perhaps none so much as the beautiful cabinet card of Harriet Tubman,” said Danielle Linn, Cowan’s senior specialist. “She’s a personal hero of mine and I’m glad so many realized just how remarkable this image of her is. The image quality is incredible, especially considering the age, and the size gives you an amazingly detailed look at one of the most famous women in American history.”
Despite her fame, there are remarkably few photographs of Tubman, who retired from public life immediately following the Civil War. Just six studio portraits of her are known to exist and of those, this photo is the largest. Bidders were clearly aware of the rarity of the image as nine phone bidders battled with a floor bidder and an internet bidder for several minutes before selling to a private collector for $51,250.
Only three lots later, the salesroom was once again abuzz as a unique piece of history of another American icon came to the block. A walking stick given to Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) by an African-American militia in Charleston, SC in 1888 was estimated to sell for between $3,000 and $5,000 but had received significant attention prior to the auction. Nine absentee bids left prior to the auction forced the lot to open at $6,500. Four phone bidders, several online bidders, and a floor bidder took over from there pushing the lot to more than six times its high estimate before selling for $37,500 to an institutional buyer.
Overall, the strongest category of the day was photography, which achieved eight of the ten highest prices of the auction. Outside of the Tubman portrait, the highlight of the category was a rare carte de visite of African American Medal of Honor recipient Christian Abraham Fleetwood (1840-1914). Fleetwood was one of just 18 African Americans to win America’s highest honor during the Civil War despite nearly 200,000 taking up arms. The lot also included three photographs of white officers from the US Colored Infantry and sold for $33,750.
Other photography highlights included a 10th Cavalry Indian scouts boudoir card, circa 1885, that sold for $20,000; a J.A. Palmer Wilde Woman of Aiken cabinet card for $18,750; a John C.H. Grabill cabinet card of a Buffalo Soldier wearing a buffalo coat for $16,250; a carte de visite of Edmonia Lewis for $15,000; an unpublished carte de visite of Frederick Douglass taken in 1864 for $12,500; and a cabinet card of famed lawman US Marshal Bass Reeves for $12,500.
The top lot of the auction was an 1887 oil on canvas by Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) entitled Mitchell's Point, Looking Down the Columbia. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1841, Brown moved to California in 1858 where he became California’s first African-American city view artist and lithographer. As a prolific and talented topographic artist and lithographer, he created images that showcased the natural beauty and essential character of the developing frontier including this breathtaking Oregon river landscape. The painting sold for $59,375 to a private collector.
The collection also featured a group of first and early edition 19th and early 20th century books by African American authors. The top lot of the category was a rare first edition of 1881’s What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, the second cookbook written by an African American to ever be published, which sold for $7,500.
Other fine book highlights included a 1907 first edition of The Home-Seeker's Guide for African-American homesteaders in Indian Territory that sold for $6,875; a 1917 first edition of The Ideal Bartender, the first published book on bartending written by an African American, for $4,375; and a 1910 first edition of Out of the Ditch, a slave narrative of J. Vance Lewis, for $3,750.
Miscellaneous highlights from the auction included an 1864 California imprint of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that sold for $12,500; a scarce illustrated invitation to an 1895 Montana hanging for $5,625; an 1898 unpublished typescript detailing African Americans fighting in the Spanish-American War for $5,313; and an archive of Southern California Black Panther Party broadsides, handbills, newsletters, and other ephemera for $4,688.
The auction was held at Hindman’s Chicago salesroom on Thursday, February 20, 2020. For complete auction results detailed images of every lot, visit Cowans.com. Part II of the collection is expected to be offered in late 2020.