Auctioning off Yesterday: For Many Black Museums, It's "Buy-Buy History"

Article excerpt

Auctioning Off Yesterday: For Many Black Museums, It's "Busy-Buy History"

When Charles L. Blockson heard in November that the Christie's auction house in New York had provoked an angry telephone protest by callers who were irate over a scheduled auction of American slavery documents, it came as little surprise to him that auction company officials had not considered the vehement public opposition to such a sale.

According to Blockson, who is curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, the auction of documents relating to slavery merely represented business as usual to the community of traders and collectors of historical artifacts. Over the past four decades, he has watched the trade in what is known as Afro-Americana become big business.

"There are more than 50,000 collectors of [B]lack memorabilia in the United States, many of whom started it as a hobby but now view their finds as money-making ventures," according to USA Today.

According to experts Ralph and Terry Kovels, authors of Kovels' Antiques and Collectables Price List 1998, a third of all Americans are active memorabilia collectors.

Black museum professionals and collectors, such as Blockson, say interest in Black history artifacts and memorabilia is at an all-time high. The Christie's incident represents just a small part of a larger picture. Among historical artifacts and documents relating to African American history, slaveryrelated items are valued most highly by collectors and dealers.

Blockson, who has been collecting rare books and documents since the 1940s, says that profitseeking private dealers and collectors harbor very little sensitivity and sentiment about the buying and selling of artifacts relating to slavery. They are motivated purely by the marketplace.

"I'm opposed to the collection of Black history artifacts and documents for profit, but it's reality," Blockson says.

The sentiments of African Americans are at odds with profiteering collectors and dealers, according to Blockson, because Blacks would rather see their his- tory preserved than traded for profit. Collectors like Blockson, instead of pursuing rare and valuable artifacts for eventual profit, usually donate their acquisitions to an institution. In 1982, Blockson donated a collection of some 20,000 documents and rare books to Temple University. He became curator of the collection, which has since grown to 150,000 catalogued items.

An Everyday Occurrence

Museums and universities depend heavily upon the generosity of donors who make collections of historic artifacts and documents available to them. However, organizations acquire many artifacts and documents by buying them on the open market, as any profitseeking collector or dealer would.

"I'm not as horrified as the uninitiated might be," is the reaction of Debra Newman Ham, professor of history at Morgan State University and the curator of a major exhibit of African American materials at the Library of Congress. (see story on page 27)

"The buying and selling of historical materials is very common. This made the big news, but it happens every day," she says, adding, "I personally am more pleased that we are valuing our history and we are valuing our tradition than I am turned off by the market in African American history."

"If we are to claim our history, we've got to go out and buy it," says Dr. Thomas D. Battle, director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.

Battle says Christie's is not alone in auctioning off items relating to American slavery. He says auction houses have engaged in such trade for "as long as I can remember." What the public knows even less about is the trade of Afro-Americana that takes place outside the auction houses among collectors and dealers, according to Battle.

"The reality is that Black history is bought and sold every day," Battle adds.

Battle says that while numerous Blacks are active in trading and collecting Afro-Americana, there's a great need for Blacks in general to get busy with maintaining and preserving their own family artifacts and records. …