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    Auction Finds

    Frederick Douglass photo find

    Last month, Swann Auction Galleries auctioned off photographs of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. The three had been photographed by a man named Cornelius M.  Battey.

    I went to the Swann auction in New York but did not pay much attention to the sale of the photographs. This week, though, when I was looking through some papers and documents I had bought at auction some months ago, I came across a Douglass print. I recalled seeing it when I first bought this lot – which I likely got for about $5 –  but had put it away.

    It is a head shot of Douglass looking to the right. It looks more like a negative or photographic print, with its dark sepia-like tones. In the lower left is Battey’s embossed stamp: The Photographic Division, C.M. Battey, Instructor, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The print is also signed, but the written signature is hard to make out.

    Since Douglass had been dead more than 15 years before Battey arrived at Tuskegee, I can only assume that this was one of the photographer’s earlier prints of the legendary man. But I can’t figure out why it had the Tuskegee stamp.

    batcover200The print came inside a nice vintage paper frame, chocolate brown, three sides. The narrow side has the Tuskegee embossing.

    Battey was born in Augusta, GA, in 1873, and had become well-known for his portraitures by the time he was 27. He owned studios in Cleveland and New York City, taking photos of important black men of his day, including Douglass. He sold portrait postcards of these men under the title “Our Master Minds.” These types of postcards apparently were very popular at the turn of the 20th century (I actually have one of a young black woman walking down a street toward the camera). Battey’s works appeared in Crisis and Opportunity magazines.

    Battey took charge of the Photographic Department at Tuskegee in 1916 and stayed there until his death in 1927. He was the school’s “official photographer,” taking pictures of students, faculty and social events.

    His W.E.B.DuBois print at the Swann auction appeared to be the iconic photo of the man. It brought in the highest bid – $7,500 ($9,000 after the premium paid to the auction house). According to Swann, the print was made in 1918. Battey’s embossed stamp was in the lower left: The Photographic Division, C.M. Battey, Instructor, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.

    The Booker T. Washington print pulled in $4,000 ($4,800 with premium). It was produced circa 1908. It had Battey’s stamp: C.M. Battey, Tuskegee Inst., Ala., Copyrighted, in the lower right of the negative.

    batlabelThe Frederick Douglass print went for $1,300 ($1,560 with premium). Circa 1895, with Battey’s stamp, Copyrighted C.M. Battey, in the lower right of the negative. It is a photo of Douglass sitting in a chair looking toward the left. Douglass died in 1895.

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