American History Specialist Katie Horstman Discusses Cowan’s Upcoming African Americana Sale

Liz Catalano
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Cowan’s Auctions, a Hindman Company, will present its first dedicated various owner African Americana auction in time for Black History Month. Auction Daily spoke with Cowan’s Senior Specialist of American History, Katie Horstman, before the sale.

Collage prints for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom [August 28, 1963]. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.
Collage prints for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom [August 28, 1963]. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.

Auction Daily: This is Cowan’s first dedicated African Americana auction. Can you tell us how this sale was put together? 

Katie Horstman: Both Cowan’s and Hindman have a history of offering African Americana in our general American Historical Ephemera & Photography and Book & Manuscript auctions. Discussions began over 18 months ago about holding a dedicated, various-owner African Americana auction. We decided to move forward this spring, based on our history of success with individual offerings, including the antebellum daguerreotype of slavery in Georgia, believed to be the earliest known image of enslaved African Americans with cotton (price realized USD 324,500, lot #24A, November 2019). We have also seen the strong results and interest generated by the two-part auction of Steve Turner’s Collection of African Americana, which achieved a combined total of $989,887 in 2020. 

Our team, based in both Chicago and Cincinnati, worked together over the last several months to build this auction. The offerings reflect our department’s wide range of expertise, from books and manuscripts to photography, imprints, posters, and other historical objects.

Press photograph of African American leaders riding a segregated bus in December of 1956. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.
Press photograph of African American leaders riding a segregated bus in December of 1956. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.

Auction Daily: This auction emphasizes the history of the Black American experience. Tell us about the collectors who preserved these documents, images, and other items.

Katie Horstman: This auction contains property from 42 different consignors from North America as well as Europe, including a consignment that came over from the Netherlands. Many consignors are dedicated collectors and historians who have thoughtfully built their personal collections over decades. Some have been clients for many years while others are working with us for the first time. Eric Majette, an Atlanta-based collector and founder of the African American Cultural Heritage Collection, consigned 46 lots to the auction. These include objects associated with legendary figures such as Marcus Garvey, Madam C.J. Walker, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Pennant from the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.
Pennant from the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.

Auction Daily: The catalog covers many periods in American history, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Which items should bidders look out for?

Katie Horstman: As with any auction, until the hammer falls, it is hard to know how it will shape up. We are very proud of how this auction came together, with so many significant individuals and historic moments represented through the offerings. The wide range of property presented in the auction (books, manuscripts, photographs, newspapers, posters, artwork, and other objects) will undoubtedly appeal to collectors with varying interests. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King are represented through 25 lots, ranging from press photographs to posters, books, illustrated (comic) books, and more. Most notably, the auction highlights the marches from Selma to Montgomery, AL, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Another notable item is a pennant from the “Poor People’s March on Wash. D.C.” This was likely carried during the May 12th, 1968 march that continued as planned despite the assassination of Dr. King a month prior (lot #198).

The auction contains five lots associated with Madam C.J. Walker, whose successful line of cosmetics and hair care products earned her the title of “the first Black woman millionaire in America.” The centerpiece is a Madam C.J. Walker sales representative badge (lot #120). 

Assorted newsletters, magazines, and broadsides related to the Black Panther Party. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.
Assorted newsletters, magazines, and broadsides related to the Black Panther Party. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.

Auction Daily: With nearly 300 available items, there is much to choose from in this event. Any hidden gems?

Katie Horstman: Lot #230, a Black Panther carved rally stick with a handle shaped like a clenched fist. Oral history from the consignor indicates that the rally stick was originally carried by an identified Black Panther Party member. 

The auction also includes many scarce newspapers, imprints, and ephemera produced by the Black Panther Party (i.e. lot #228) as well as CORE (Committee of Racial Equality), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). 

Lot #212, a “Mississippi Project” map and packet produced by the SNCC contains information about the group’s various programs. It also documents the day-by-day violence perpetrated against SNCC members and allies during the summer of 1964. 

Sixth plate daguerreotype of Joseph Jenkins Roberts (c. 1840s). Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.
Sixth plate daguerreotype of Joseph Jenkins Roberts (c. 1840s). Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.

Auction Daily: One of the top lots is a daguerreotype of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first and seventh president of Liberia. Tell us about this important photo.

Katie Horstman: Born free in Norfolk, VA, Joseph Jenkins Roberts was the son of an unknown father and a manumitted woman of mixed race. At 20 years old, Roberts departed for the colony of Liberia with his first wife, young child, and members of his family. While the colony was still under the general authority of the American Colonization Society, Roberts was appointed the first African American to serve as Governor of Liberia (1841-1847). When at last the colony secured its independence, he served as Liberia’s first elected president (1848-1856). He later served as the nation’s seventh president (1872-1876).

Consigned by a private collector, this daguerreotype may be only the third known photographic image of Roberts. The other two photographic images, also sixth plate daguerreotypes (one a period copy), are held in the American Colonization Society records at the Library of Congress. They were taken in the 1850s. Considering this portrait was likely produced in the 1840s, it may also be one of the earliest documented photographic images of Roberts. 

Auction Daily: Interest in African Americana auctions seems to be on the rise across the industry. Where do you see the future of the category?

Katie Horstman: We recognize increasing efforts among institutional and private buyers to build and strengthen their collections relative to the Black American experience. Auctions such as our upcoming African Americana sale provide an opportunity to shed a light on figures and moments in history that have long been overlooked or undervalued. Historical artifacts included in such auctions help to highlight the tremendous impact Black American voices and lives have had on American society, culture, and history. We anticipate sales in this category will continue to strive to recognize the achievements of these extraordinary men and women and their central role in shaping this nation. 

Live bidding for Cowan’s African Americana sale will begin at 10:00 AM EST on February 18th, 2021. Interested collectors can visit Cowan’s Auctions for more information or to place a bid. Find continued coverage on Auction Daily.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
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James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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