How “rare” is the slave boys’ photo
  • Searching for J.N. Wilson’s stereoview cards
  • Book of photos that tell the Civil War story
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    Auction Finds

    Buzz is still on story of ‘rare’ slave photo

    Last week, questions were raised about what was described as a “rare” photo of two slave boys and the identity of the photographer who captured them. I wrote about the photo, too, out of curiosity.

    I’m an auction lover and am always on the lookout for items with an African American theme (not the type of stuff that denigrate us as a people). So I was intrigued about the photo in particular and the slave document purchased by collector Keya Morgan in April. He had paid $30,000 for the photo, which some historians had attributed to renowned Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. 

    The same photo was sold as a stereo-view card on Ebay for $163 and can be found in the New York Public Library Digital Gallery. I decided to contact the eBay seller last week because I wanted to know the story behind how he got the stereo-view card and his take on the question of the validity of the photo. And you know how I love a good story. (Photo of stereo-view card above was taken from the eBay auction site.)

    The stereo-view card was inscribed with the name J.N. Wilson, who owned a photography studio in Savannah, Ga., for 30 years in the 19th century. The eBay seller, who wished to remain anonymous but says he had been in the antiques and collectibles business for 25 years before retiring, believed the photo attributed to Brady was actually a copy of the Wilson stereo-view card. 

    Morgan has defended the authenticity of Brady as the photographer, and questioned the eBay seller’s motives for doubting that authenticity. The eBay seller has said that it’s important to get at the truth of who shot the photos of the boys. I did tons of Google research on the issue, because it involved the history of my people in this country and it stirred my journalistic interest (I was a newspaper reporter and editor for more than 30 years).  I wrote about what I found, not as a critic of the purchase or to discredit the photo.

    Who actually photographed these boys? I have no idea, and likely no one else unless both the photo and the card are examined by experts. The bottom line is that the ultimate decision is Keya Morgan’s. It’s his photo; he paid for it. It’s not in a public museum; it’s in his private collection. What he chooses to do with it is really his decision – whether he keeps it for himself or sells it to someone else. But it’s probably a good idea to have it authenticated just to turn down the sound buzzing around it.  

    I’m sure these boys would never have fathomed that this photo of one instance in their lives would generate so much news – much more than was ever printed while they were in bondage. How sad.

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    1. I’m so glad I found your blog. I collect photographs and this auction was really interesting to me too. Have you read about the photograph “Kaloma”? It sounds like a similar situation.

      I’d like to see two things happen – a database of photographers to help identify and authenticate images like these (wish I could create one). And some kind of clearinghouse to let regular people know if the images in their family photograph collection are rare and what a fair price for them would be.

      • Hi. I like your idea about a clearinghouse for photo collections of regular people. Over the past few days, I’ve talked to friends who have photos or have relatives with some very good vintage photos. One has a photo of her grandmother (I believe) who in her vaudeville outfit. I plan to do a blog post on photos in friends’ collections.


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