Early black portraits: A rare find
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    Auction Finds

    Locating lost family members from our past

    The auctioneer held up the bi-folded photo frame containing a vintage photo of a man and woman. $5, he said to us auction-goers standing in the driveway of a brick home where a thicket of ivy covered the grounds and clung to the trees. The house felt disconnected from its neighbors, whose lawns were neatly manicured and whose trees had been chopped down long ago to make way for more communal living.

    At this house, though, the people in the photos or their descendants had let nature run its own path, unimpeded, away from prying eyes. These folks were isolated and apparently liked it that way.

    The auctioneer stood at a table of their stuff, holding the family photos, almost pleading for one of us to take them home. He dropped the bidding to $2, lingered there for a moment, and then to $1. We just stared at him, uninterested. Finally, he added a few other items to the lot, and finally someone took the stuff off his hands.

    For some of us, our ancestors' faces are not even a blur because we have no photos of them.

    Those were not the only images. As I made a walk-through of the house, I came across two large paintings of what seemed to be the same people (or at least another pair of relatives) hanging on a bedroom wall. Those, too, were up for sale, along with closets full of clothes, still-made beds holding folded linens, several boxes of hats, beautiful antique furniture and even dishes in the kitchen.

    Seeing those photos made me wonder again why family members don’t keep old photos of their relatives. Some of us don’t have them and wish that we did. I don’t know what my great-grandmothers looked like (my family did find a photo of my great-grandfather on my mother’s side). Do I resemble (or as we southerners call it, favor) one of them?

    When I hear of people who go searching for their relatives – either now or in the past – I understand that strong desire to know. That’s why I was taken with two pieces written in the last month or so by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Daniel Rubin. They were about two families who had searched for and found their ancestors.

    One had images of his people, the other did not, but their missions were similar.

    The first was the story of a man who was related to Hiram Charles Montier and his wife Elizabeth Brown Montier, whose portraits were exhibited by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009. They were among the earliest portraits of African Americans, believed to have been painted around 1841. The portraits were loaned by the Montiers’ descendants. Hiram Montier was a bootmaker and descendant of the son of Philadelphia’s first mayor.

    Hiram Charles Montier and his wife Elizabeth Brown Montier. Their portraits were exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

    Their descendant, Bill Pickens, had spent 21 years searching for their graves and found them in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, PA, with the assistance of the cemetery’s historian.

    The second was the story of a man who as a child lost contact with his father who was in a German concentration camp at Mauthausen, Austria. Sol Finkelstein last saw his father in 1945 when the Germans led his father and others on a forced death march. Finkelstein’s son had learned on his own that the father had survived the march, and had been liberated by the Allies and taken to a hospital, where he died of typhus a few days later.

    According to the column, Ancestry.com and the U.S. Holocaust Museum have made the task of ancestor-searching easier for families of victims. They have digitized and indexed millions of Nazi documents that in a few weeks will be accessible online.

    A researcher at the museum found a photo and ID card of Finkelstein’s father, according to the column. He keeps a copy near his bed and his TV so he can see his father’s face as often as he likes. I understand.


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