Records & Results: Spring 2023 Sale of Printed & Manuscript African Americana

African Americana brings $1.3M making it the highest-grossing sale for the category and the third-largest sale for Swann’s books and manuscripts department

Our annual Printed & Manuscript African Americana auction on Thursday, March 30, 2023, was by a wide margin the most successful in its 28-year history. The sale set records with $1,377,463 in total sales and an even 94% sell-through rate. Eight lots hit the $50,000 mark—after only 14 lots having hit that mark in the previous 27 years combined. It was the third-largest sale in the long history of the house’s book department, behind only two noted single-owner sales, the Epstein sale of 1992, and the Ford sale of 2012.  

The most notable feature of the auction was the very strong bidding from institutional buyers. 43 different institutions were registered to bid in the auction. At least 105 lots were sold to 29 different institutions, in addition to numerous lots bought for institutions through private agents. “Numerous libraries, archives, and museums across the country are making up for lost time by increasing their representation of Black history. For 25 years, Swann has been the leading conduit for bringing this source material from private hands into public hands,” noted Rick Stattler, director of books and manuscripts and specialist for the sale.

James Presley Ball

Left: Inscribed carte-de-visite portrait of early photographer James Presley Ball, circa 1870. Sold for $125,000.

The top lot in the sale was an inscribed carte-de-visite by the important early photographer James Presley Ball, which brought $125,000. Only one other photograph of Ball is known to exist. A signed 1862 essay by the white abolitionist Portia Gage brought $8,000; it had been acquired from another auction house in 2003 for $345. 

Slavery, Abolition & the Civil War

Items relating to slavery and abolition included an archive of letters from Richmond slave dealers, found an institutional home at $50,000, and the papers of abolitionist Theodore Bourne which included the minutes of the African Civilization Society reached $17,500.

The Civil War was well represented with an extremely scarce and important photograph of Black recruits at Camp William Penn, which brought $52,500; an ambrotype of a Black Confederate valet which earned $17,500; and a full-length profile portrait of a Union cavalryman at $11,250. Two diaries kept by white officers saw success: Capt. Joshua Addeman of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery sold for $14,375, and surgeon Lincoln Ripley Stone of the legendary 54th Massachusetts Infantry reached $50,000. 

Theatre, Fine Art, & Literature

In the realm of arts and literature, the lone issue of the scarce and important magazine Fire!! sold for $32,500, and an archive of warm personal letters from sculptor Richmond Barthé brought $50,000. Papers of pianist-composer Lawrence Brown and an annotated typescript of Richard Wright’s adaption of Daddy Goodness earned $27,500 apiece.

Black-Owned Businesses

Right: Records of the Green Book-approved Eggleston Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, 1954-66. Sold for $13,750.

Material relating to Black-owned businesses found success among buyers with a small archive of the Eggleston Hotel that brought $13,750 and a catalogue of Color-Tone Christmas cards $10,000. 

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Among the notable records—each of which had been previously held by Swann—the famed McPherson & Oliver carte-de-visite The Scourged Back brought $75,000; Charles White’s Six Drawings portfolio of prints brought $5,000; an unusually large run of 80 issues of the Black Panther newspaper The Black Panther: Black Community News Service reached $20,000; and a 1949 issue of the Negro Motorist Green Book brought $50,000, shattering the previous record of $27,500.