Tips of the Trade
Philip Merrill says black memorabilia tells stories no history book can tell.
Nineteenth century African American women made this rare memorial quilt.
Slaves once wore tags like this for identification.
Folk artist W.A. Walker depicted rural life in the deep South from a social perspective.
For the last quarter-century, those interested in African American history have flocked to one of the long-neglected areas of American collectibles: African Americana, also known as black memorabilia. A daguerreotype of abolitionist Frederick Douglass; notable diplomas from the early history of black universities; a rare rifle carried by a black Civil War soldier; a quilt sewn by African American grandmothers: these are just some of the objects that institutional collectors and individuals, both black and white, currently are seeking out.
More on African Americana, also known as black memorabilia
"Black memorabilia consist of the artifacts that accompanied African Americans on their journey of survival and achievement," says appraiser Philip J. Merrill, of Baltimore's Nanny Jack & Company, an organization devoted to discovering and appreciating African American history and culture through collecting, researching and preserving black memorabilia. "The seemingly commonplace objects that accompanied Africans and their descendants in America can often tell the story of our sorrows, our defeats and our victories, in ways that no history book can."
Why So Popular?
Philip says that the demand for these objects has risen steadily since the 1970s. Some of the interest was fueled by Alex Haley's Roots, the book and then television series about African American slavery. As African Americans sought out their genealogical past, they also sought the objects that have survived that past, Philip notes.
Notable black celebrities such as television star Oprah Winfrey, musician Branford Marsalis and actor Whoopi Goldberg have begun to collect African Americana. Public institutions, such as the New York Public Library and Duke University, have also focused on the black memorabilia as part of their collections. This increased demand and the improved exchange of information about these objects on the Internet have boosted prices. A daguerreotype of famed black abolitionist Frederick Douglass recently sold for $184,000; another of the white abolitionist John Brown sold for $129,000.
However, many more common objects are on the lower end of the price scale, such as early issues of the NAACP magazine Crisis edited by W.E.B. DuBois. One issue can sell for $100-$150. A single pomade canister, sold by millionaire hair-care entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker to those who wanted to moisturize their hair, can sell for $500.
"The black memorabilia collecting locomotive is running full steam," Philip says. "And it's been chugging along strong since the early 1980s."
Many collectors have sought objects from the most painful chapter of African American history: the slavery period. Some of the most powerful objects from this era are: slave tags, which slaves were required to wear as identification; shackles, whips and collar braces; and Certificates of Freedom, paper documents granted to slaves who were freed.
These two slave tags were found with a metal detector near Charleston, South Carolina, and brought to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in Providence, Rhode Island. These tags, like many others, show the year they were made, the slave's occupation, such as house servant or porter, and an ID number that was stored at the local treasurer's office.
"These were used to distinguish slaves from run-away slaves," Philip explains. "You have to remember that there were slaves up and down the Atlantic seaboard trying to escape their owners."
In the past, slave tags were almost always found in South Carolina. "Now they are popping up all over the South," says Philip, discoveries that indicate that the tags were manufactured throughout the pre-Civil War South.
Collecting and Learning
The collecting of slave objects is controversial, though, as some critics argue that collectors are making money off what are tragic and often sacred objects in African American history. However, Philip — a collector of black memorabilia himself — defends the practice. He maintains that the history of African Americans, including the objects in that history, can be an inspiring testimony to the strength of the human spirit in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity.
"Collecting is a way to learn about the past, preserve the past and to never allow the atrocities to take place again," Philip argues, adding that the display of objects helps do this. "Nothing is more powerful than seeing these authentic objects. A KKK robe speaks volumes, as does a picture of a boy with a noose around his neck. The public needs to deal with the truth and these objects are an important part of American history.
"For too long, the issues of slavery and other parts of African American history have been pushed under the rug," Philip continues. "These objects are a powerful way to share a facet of our history. The more you're able to educate and expose people to the truth of the past, the better off we'll all be. What better way to learn about the past than through its objects."
Watch Out for Fakes
The field of African Americana, like any profitable field, has a good share of fakes. "There's a lot of money to be made and a lot of novice collectors," Philip says. "That makes it ripe for forgers. People are trying to fake slave documents, tintypes, slave shackles, slave tags and anything else they can make some money selling. This can be an unscrupulous business."
Early in his collecting history, Philip bought a pair of shackles that he thought were used on American slaves. He later discovered that the shackles were made in 1969 in India. He went back to the dealer, who apologized, and then took them back, refunding $250 more than Philip had originally paid.
While this dealer went above and beyond, Philip says that, "Any reputable dealer should stand by their merchandise." To protect yourself, he suggests you have the dealer guarantee in writing that the object is what it's being sold as. "If you don't know, don't buy. It's that simple," Philip says, a rule that translates into any field of collecting.
To learn more about collecting African Americana, Philip J. Merrill recommends reading the following books:
Images in Black: 150 years of Black Collectibles, Douglas Congdon-Martin,Schiffer Limited Publishing, Pennsylvania, 1990.
This paperback is a price guide written for a general audience and is especially strong in its coverage of older black memorabilia of higher value.
Black Collectibles Sold in America, P.J. Gibbs,Collector Books, a division of Schroeder Publishing, Paducah, Kentucky, 1990.
This hardcover is also a price guide that is very strong in its coverage of more modern black memorabilia, such as Black Panther buttons.
The Art of Collecting Black Memorabilia, Philip J. Merrill.
An explanation of the process of collecting black memorabilia in this helpful reference tool. Contact Philip at P.O. Box 21102, Baltimore, Maryland 21228 phone (410) 945-6067 Fax (410) 945-662.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Collectibles category:
Space "Junk": Buying, Owning, and the Law (Houston, 2006)
Is This the Real Rudolph? (Providence, 2006)
An Audience With "The King"
On Track With Railroad Ephemera
Calling All Elvis Fans! ... Got This Photo? (Memphis, 2005)
Cornucopia of Crate Labels
Raging for Roadmaps
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.