Black Panther banner, Purvis Young art & more of my 2013 favorites
I know the first day of the new year is supposed to be a time for looking forward (and I’ll certainly be doing that). But since Auction Finds is a blog about looking back, I decided to compile some posts of items that I loved discovering in 2013.
They range from the historical to the artistic to the whimsical to the practical. You may have read some, while others may have gotten past you. Either way, it’s a joy to go back and see what the auction tables turned up over the year.
The green and white banner was attached to what looked like a “Black Panthers” wall at the auction house. It blended into the arrangement of posters and photographs of party notables, set apart only slightly by the figure of a black panther striding across its center. I swept my eyes over the display, but didn’t spend much time looking at it. Boy, was I wrong to ignore it.
I went looking for the tintypes and Cabinet cards of photos of African Americans. I knew that we helped to settle the West – even though I never learned that in history class – so I wanted to see if any of the artifacts in this Wild West auction featured black people.
As I approached the display of books and documents on the table, the words 9th and 10th Calvary in a title stirred my memory. Weren’t those the African American soldiers who charged with Teddy Roosevelt, I asked a woman dressed smartly in a navy uniform with gold buttons and a hat during the Black Memorabilia Collectors Fair at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, MD. I was correct, she said. I had bought a framed print of the assault on San Juan Hill at auction a few months ago that showed the battle and the black soldiers’ contribution to it in life and limb.
The first photo among the black and whites showed the proud stoic face of a Native American man. He wore two long braids on either side of his head, a pompadour framing his forehead, eyes staring to the left. Across his chest was a sash with symbols, and just beneath it, someone had affixed a sign that read “Chief Joseph.” The back of the photo bore some faint writing that looked to have been erased.
I was surprised to learn that Alex Haley’s childhood memories had been immortalized in sculptures. I “discovered” them last summer while visiting the home of a friend’s sister who owned several figurines depicting his growing-up years in Henning, TN. Most had been made by a sculptor named Ellen McGowan, whose name was unfamiliar to me. I was curious, though, about who he was. She later contacted me and agreed to an interview.
I had told myself that I would not buy any artwork that day, and I had remained firm until the auction house began selling works by African American folk artist Purvis Young. I sat quietly as the auctioneer sold off piece after piece of Young’s painted-plywood abstract-style art until I just had to jump in. I ended up buying two of his works.
As soon as I saw the word on the label, I recognized the material. “Carborundum” was printed in large block letters on the cover of the box, which was about the size of a large Hershey chocolate candy bar. The carborundum – the color of wet concrete and just as solid and hard – was still in its original box, unused. The word forced a name to collect inside my head: African American artist Dox Thrash.
The oil painting – a burst of brilliant colors – was signed “L. Sloan.” I knew that name but my brain refused to give form to the artist. None of the “L” names I thought of were clicking, so I pushed the painting aside and finished my browsing of the other works. This painting appealed to me because it looked as real as an autumn day, the oranges and yellows of the leaves so brilliant that I could touch them. I finally remembered the artist’s name: Louis Sloan.
I could feel the woman’s eyes on me as I flipped through the book of black and white photographs. Without even seeing her face, I knew what she was thinking. I was taking my time going through the book and she could tell that I was liking it a lot more than she wished. It was a book of the interiors of New York homes at the turn of the 20th century. She wanted that book and was afraid that I would, too – seeing in her mind the $5 she had hoped to pay for it toppled by my higher bid.
I seem to have this thing for lamps. As soon as I see one at auction, I head over to it to check it out, especially if it has a unique or interesting form. Sometimes, the ingenuity and strangeness of a lamp grabs me. I don’t think it’s just me; most folks have a thing for lamps. We don’t just buy them to light our houses; we buy them to help decorate them.
I always wander among the furniture at auction houses because I never know what will catch my eye. Along with the heavy antique pieces are usually items that don’t fit into any space and defy my imagination. Like the free-form wooden chair that looked like a rabbit. Or the Louis XV style toilet chairs. I was prowling the floors of one auction house recently, down one aisle and then another, when I came upon a bench that stopped me in my tracks.
I’m not much of a boxing fan. I find the sport too messy and too barbaric, so I don’t usually bother with any reference to it at auction. Recently, though, I came across what I thought was a story about one boxer – but found later that it was two – while thumbing through a magazine called “Self Defense” from 1929. It was old, torn and tattered around the edges, the pages somewhat brittle, smelling of old paper put away too long without air. It told of two boxers with the name Joe Gans.
I was flipping through some magazines at auction last week when a familiar cover willed me to stop. It was an August 1965 copy of Ebony magazine with the silhouette of a man’s face in white against a black background. “The White Problem in America,” the cover blared. It reminded me of a recent issue of Philadelphia Magazine that had created a stir in the city. Nearly 50 years apart, the covers were remarkably similar; they both took on the issue of race from two decidedly different ways but chose the same stark cover design.
Collectors of black dolls series
Etta Houston didn’t start collecting dolls until the 1970s when her youngest child got married. She especially liked baby dolls, said her daughter Barbara Weir, the one whose departure sparked Houston’s doll-collecting. “She said that her babies didn’t eat, cry, or grow up and sass,” Weir said.
Debbie Behan Garrett has a special way with dolls. She hears what they have to say, wordlessly, through the feelings they engender inside her. They are dolls that have led lives, passed through hands (or not) and even strode through history. They are dolls that “in some way warmed my heart enough to buy them,” she said.
Read more interviews in the series.
When Thomas A. Dorsey lost his first wife in childbirth in 1932 and his son a day later, he was so devastated that he questioned his faith. He found his way back to his God, and out of his pain came one of the most beautiful gospel songs ever: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” A decade later, Dorsey found the second love of his life. For the “peace and devotion” she gave him, he wrote a gospel song for her on their 17th wedding anniversary in 1958.
The bidding had gotten started when I arrived at the auction house, so I decided to check out some tables farther away from the action. On a table just beyond me, a bright orange cover illuminated among the other pieces around it. I was instantly drawn to the color, but then I saw what was printed on the cover: “We Shall Overcome” in bold black letters.
I first fell for the Temptations’ “Silent Night” like a woman in love. I couldn’t get enough of hearing Dennis Edward’s stirring lyrics and Melvin Franklin’s deep barrel of a voice. And who was that guy singing so high that it gave me goose bumps? I don’t exactly remember when I fell for this soulful version of the 1818 Austrian song heralding the birth of Christ. I do know that it captured my heart and my head and wouldn’t let go.
The duct tape was what snagged me. I had seen the worn and lined face of the elderly black man in the black and white photo, gazed upon it momentarily, dropped it back on the auction table with the other two and moved on. Then it came up for sale, and I saw it: Duct tape on the old man’s accordion. He had put strips of tape on the bellows to keep the instrument from falling apart as he played. It told me loads about the man – what he had, what he didn’t have, how he survived and how he had used cheap duct tape to not only hold his accordion together but perhaps his life.
They were loving each other at a time when it was taboo in his country. But the couple in the photographs did not betray any hint of the turmoil that their love could cause them for the rest of their lives once he was back home. In this album of photos where time stood still and love transcended all, they simply seemed happy. This was the 1940s, and thankfully they were not in the United States but in a European country where love trumped skin color.
The black and white photo was magnificent in both its expansiveness and the history it captured. Through the dirty and dusty glass frame, I could see long rows of horses tied to wooden fences. Just beyond the animals, stretching from one end of the panoramic view to the other, were even more rows of Army tents that from a distance looked like teepees. In one single shot, a photographer had documented a seemingly calm moment in the life of a U.S. military camp just past the dawn of the 20th century.
It was a simple note in an email from my auction friend Rebecca: “Take a look at the auction site of Brunk Auctions, the March 23rd auction.” She directed me to Lot 64, and what I found was a “Vintage Vampire-Killing Kit” for sale. She’d heard of people killing vampires, Rebecca said later, but didn’t believe that it was real. Neither did I.
Whenever I visit Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, I always head to the amazing little nook that is its orchid house, where the plants are always in bloom in seemingly every color of the rainbow, healthy and beautiful and oh-so-relaxing. That same aura characterized the orchid room in the Conservatory at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, where I vacationed more than a month ago.
The color was the first thing that struck me. The round chartreuse item seemed to glow in the glass case at the auction house. I wasn’t sure what it was – it resembled a door bell, but it was too lovely and too pristine to have been used to announce an arrival. It was in the good company of other equally small and intriguing items, all of which seemed to serve no purpose but to look good.
“This is my favorite.” I heard the bass voice of a man so I looked up to see an auction-house staffer headed to the far end of a shelf with a mirrored backdrop. His eyes were set on a ladies hat among the rows of colorful hats – many of them with feathers – lining the back wall in a room at the auction house. I watched as he stopped in front of a 1920s-style silver-beaded flapper hat with long strands around the bottom edge to the shoulder. The strands swayed as he removed the hat from the stand and tried to place it on his almost-hairless head.
Some years ago, I picked up a lobby card for the 1950 movie “The Jackie Robinson Story” at auction. The card showed a smiling Robinson, Ruby Dee as his wife Rachel, along with other actors playing Branch Rickey and the Montreal Royals manager. They were all arm in arm, prancing freely and delightfully in a place without hostility. At least, that’s what the lobby card tried to portray in a movie produced three years after Robinson made it to the Brooklyn Dodgers. But we all know that Robinson and his family were not living a carefree life on or off the field.
I could see the larger-than-life faces of the man and woman from a distance. As I got closer to the framed poster, I saw that their expressions appeared benign, although her pale white face was in the outline of smoke coming from a revolver in his hand. The man was black and his face looked familiar. Beneath their images were these words: “Richard Wright en Sangre Negra (Native Son).”
I wasn’t too keen on engaging in all the intellectual back-and-forths swirling around Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Django Unchained,” but I broke down and went with my friend Kristin over the weekend to a discussion about it. If nothing else, the group of black people – who’d come out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to sit in a tightly packed room – got a chance to air their feelings. Some loved it. Some were disturbed by it. All wanted to analyze it.