“A Collectibles Market Builds around African American Art, History: Collectibles Range from Rediscovered Works of Art to Jim Crow Relics” Hartford Courant (February 29, 2008) This has been Black History Month, but for a growing number of collectors, black history is a year-round pursuit. African-Americana is a field that comprises both art and everyday objects related to black history in America. Today there are auctions and shows, not to mention dozens of collecting guides. Antiques dealer Deborah Lemieux got her start back in the days when African-Americana was a peripheral market. Since then, she says, the demand has “exploded” with the rise of the black collectors, who make up most of the buyers in the field. She and her husband David own Stonegate Antiques in Glastonbury, an online firm, whose inventory includes hundreds of pieces related to African-American history. Strong-sellers include pop culture memorabilia from the first half of the 20th century.   Jazz legend Louis Armstrong and dancer Josephine Baker are perennial favorites. Less well-known figures are also attracting interest. Lemieux cites Madam C. J. Walker, the fabulously successful entrepreneur, who has been discovered by collectors, thanks, in part, to a recent biography. African-Americana is, nonetheless, a regional market, concentrated in the southern and mid-Atlantic states. Local auctioneer Ed Nadeau reports that he sees very little black memorabilia. In 2006, a small collection was consigned at Nadeau’s Auction Gallery in Windsor. But, he says, “It could be another ten years before I sell more—or some might come in tomorrow.” The fine arts are better represented in Connecticut salerooms. Nadeau has sold thirty or forty paintings by Charles Porter, the Connecticut native who was one of a handful of black Victorian artists. He was a forgotten figure at his death, in 1923, and his work lingered on in old Connecticut houses for a couple more generations. In the 1980s, a painting by Porter could be picked up at auction for as little as $600, while recent bidding has surpassed the twenty-thousand dollar mark. Many of the sales, Nadeau says, are to out-of-state buyers. The increased prices for Porter’s work reflect the rediscovery of African-American artists—a trend that, in turn reflects the rediscovery of obscure and regional artists. The black Americana market ties in with the larger art market in another important way: prices reflect quality. “Good but not wonderful pieces get good but not wonderful prices” is Nadeau’s realistic assessment. The field of African-Americana emerged in the 1970s, in the wake of the civil rights movement.   The reevaluation of black material culture has not been without controversy. Especially problematic are the everyday objects that reflect the country’s fraught racial history. Stereotypical and derogatory representations of blacks were used to sell everything from toys to kitchen wares, until a few decades ago. The imagery was, in Lemieux’s words, “anywhere and everywhere.” The abundance of such items is one reason prices are low, with many selling for less than $100. The trade in things related to slavery and the Jim Crow era was, also, touch and go for many years. Lemieux, who is white, was at first unwilling to sell them for fear of appearing exploitive. “I didn’t want to touch that,” she says. Her change of mind reflects their eventual assimilation into the collectibles market. So popular, in fact, are they that fakes are a rampant problem.  Disconcertingly, the signs designating black and white entrances, that were once a ubiquitous part of Southern life, are being reproduced by forgers, who are, in many cases, responding to the demand for Jim Crow relics. Nostalgia is a potent influence in the antiques market, but the young collector   hanging a “Colored Section” sign in the living room is manifestly not pining for the days of segregation. Aesthetic criteria are also secondary. It is hard to look at an auction broadside advertising “100 negroes for sale” and see a fine specimen of 19th-century graphic design. So why would someone bring all this into their home? The need to remember the past is the principal motive, says Lemieux. The prosperous professionals who frequent the black memorabilia shows want things that show how life used to be. That tragedy is a big part of black history is indisputable. Take the iron shackles that Lemieux is selling.  They are highly desirable by the ghoulish standards of connoisseurship for this sort of thing. They are worn and rusty, and their provenance can be traced to a Georgia plantation. Other pieces are chronologically—and geographically—closer to home. Lemieux has in stock a poster for the minstrel show that was an annual tradition at one Connecticut high school. The poster is dated 1954, the year of Brown versus the Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that was the legal cornerstone for desegregation. According to Lemieux, non-blacks are often perturbed by what they see. Surprise, embarrassment, and shock are common reactions when they discover that the things they have stowed away in the closet are now a trendy collectible. “My grandmother used to have that in her kitchen” is a comment Lemieux is accustomed to hearing at antiques shows. She is the occasional depository for these shameful family treasures.  “I don’t want this in the house,” they say, handing over their mammy spoon rests and Sambo paperweights.  Paradoxically, the rejected heirlooms are often acquired by black collectors, who came of age after the momentous changes of the 1950s and ’60s. The ability to view these artifacts historically is a sign of how much progress has been made.  Significant, too, is the number of blacks who, no longer defined by caricatures, are in a position to appropriate them.  Nonetheless, the field of African-Americana continues to be shaped and stimulated by controversy.
Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
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amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971