Are Photographs of Slave Children really worth $30000?

This weekend produced quite a stir over a “rare” Mathew Brady photograph of two slave children that was reported found in a North Carolina attic. An undated rare photo provided by collector Keya Morgan from New York, found in a North Carolina attic, depicts two slave children, art historians say. In April, the photo was found at a moving sale in Charlotte, accompanied by a document detailing the sale of John, left, for $1,150 in 1854.

An AP story refers to the “haunting 150-year-old photo” of a young black child named John, barefoot and wearing ragged clothes, perched on a barrel next to another unidentified young boy. The article says the photo, along with a document detailing the sale of John, was found at a moving sale in Charlotte, N.C. Adding to the value is the assertion that the “rare” photo was supposedly taken by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.

New York collector Keya Morgan, the AP reports, says he paid $30,000 for a photo album that included the image of the young boys and several family pictures and $20,000 for the document about “John” being sold an auction.

But some digging, largely by a writer who goes by the name Kate Marcus, and a avid collector of African-American art named Sherry Howard (more below) turns up another side to the story:

  1. The photo is not “rare” nor “undiscovered,” in fact you can see it right now at the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery, where it is part of a permanent collection.
  2. In addition, the same image was sold by a Connecticut eBay seller in a passel of photos for $163 two weeks ago.
  3. The New York Library’s copy notes that the photo was take around 1870 in Georgia by a Jerome Wilson, a noted photographer from the era also known as J.N. Wilson. This would also tend to undercut the “slave child” aspect since it apparently was taken after the Civil War.
  4. The eBay seller, who prefers to remain unidentified, says the photos he sold were side-by-side “stereoscopic” or 3-D) images, which, he says, can only be done by the original photographer, who he also identities as Wilson. The North Carolina version is a tighter cropped version of that image. The seller says photos were often copied by others at the time, so the fact that several copies of the same image would be in circulation under the name of different photographers is not unusual. The North Carolina photo has the name “Brady” as a caption.
  5. Several sites, and the eBay seller, say Wilson is the photographer. The eBay seller, an avid collector of antique photos, says Brady, in any case, never did 3-D photos.
  6. Kate Marcus, posting for the website Before It’s News, says she was able to undercut the weekend story with a few strokes on the keyboard and bare-bones searching. She said she was suspicious because a photo of young slaves “not such a rare subject matter.” Sherry Howard, who avidly follows auctions for African-American art, also has done some in-depth research into the “slave photo” issue here. In addition, there is a lively discussion about the photo at an eBay forum.

More stories:

photographic historian

Update at 6:16 p.m. ET: Will Stapp, a photographic historian and founding curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s photographs department at the Smithsonian Institution, was quoted by the AP as calling the photograph a “very difficult and poignant piece of American history.” He nows says that he believes the photo is from around 1865 to 1866 and that the boys, while apparently free, were almost certainly born into slavery. But he says he is now unsure about the photographer. He says he does not believe it was one of Brady’s photographers, Tim O’Sullivan. Most likely, he says, it was Wilson (whose photo is in the New York Public Library) or a photographer named Coonley, since Wilson was known to have bought up Coonley’s work.

“Nothing is absolutely cut and dried,”Stapp says.”We have lost so many records, even though we have some information, there is is not guarante what we know or think we know is true.” “I took it at face value,” he says. “But I should have known.” He does assert, however, that Brady did in fact do stereoscopic photography, although likely not this one.
As for a photo selling on eBay for $163 and at an attic sale for$30,000, Stapp says, “Caveat emptor (buyer beware).”

Update at 7:13 p.m. ET: Morgan pushes back strongly on any challenge to his $30,000 photo. He says his photograph is without question from 1862 or 1863, which he dates by the photographic process and the mounting that Brady used at that time, and not later. “The quality is self-evident,” he says. Wilson, on the other hand, was known for commercial copies of the works of other for many years after the war, he says. Morgan says the eBay photos and the New York Public library photos are of poor quality and were mass produced. “He copies Brady’s photos and other photos in huge quanities,” Morgan says. “One is the Real McCoy and one is the Fake McCoy,” he says, putting his decidedly in the first category.

Morgan attributes some of questions raised about his purchase to “buyer’s remorse” from the eBay seller who sold his photos for $163. Morgan says that the seller probably could have gotten around $1,000 for the photos, although not much more. He also stands by the claim that the photo was from North Carolina. He also says that by placing the date firmly in th 1862-63 period, that the boys would have still been slaves.


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