How can something be ugly and beautiful at the same time? That might not be the question that Quinn’s Auction Gallery wants to raise, much less answer, with its upcoming auction of The Howard Wolverton Collection.
But the paradox of black life in America from the early 1800s through the 1960s – beauty and ugliness, sadness and celebration, triumph and tribulation – is ever present in the over 300 lots up for auction at Quinn’s tonight.
“This is a celebration of our country’s history. Everything has a light side and everything has a dark side,” said Jacob Johnson, an antique dealer from New Jersey who lives in Northern Virginia, as he pointed to piece of sheet music from 1898 titled “When A Coon Sits in the Presidential Chair” that is part of the auction.
“….Then eventually things come together and we have to accept the fact that this is part of America….If these things are negative, you have to look in the mirror and it’s part of you.”
The sheet music, part of a lot that includes another piece of sheet music called “There’ll Never Be a Coon Sit In The Presidential Chair” that was inspired by the aforementioned piece, is one of the rarer items in the sale.
Another rare item in the auction is a tintype of William Tillman, a free black man and sailor who after being captured by Confederate soldiers and being told he would be sold into slavery, led a rebellion against his captors, captured the ship and steered it back to Union territory in July 1861.
There are also slave shackles, postcards depicting lynchings, a first edition of Countee Cullen’s Color and a copy of Langston Hughes’ Something in Common and Other Stories, both of which are signed by the authors.
And while there are many crude caricatures of blacks among the artifacts being sold, there is one piece, “Fugitive Slaves Pipe,” carved by F.J. Kaldenburg out of meerschaum that is intricately detailed, eerie and awe-inspiring. Kaldenburg copied the scene, a black man and woman being chased by a pack of dogs while the man readies an ax swing at one of the dogs and the woman looks out while running, from a painting called “The Hunted Slaves” by Richard Ansdell in 1861.
According to Matthew Quinn, executive vice president of Quinn’s Northern Virginia branch, Wolverton, a history teacher who died in 2005, collected the full range of artifacts of black life in America to use as teaching tools at East Orange High School in East Orange, NJ. After Wolverton died, his wife reached out to Johnson for help sorting through his massive collection of over 2,000 items and finding someone to sell them.
“He was an educator. He assembled this collection from an education perspective. And other collectors are doing similar things,” Quinn said. “An African-American art museum, for example, wants to look at culture across the way and not everything in a museum is valuable, but it all represents a time and it represents something in the past.”
There are three lots in the auction that contain artifacts of the Ku Klux Klan, a white terrorist organization that still exists today. There is one lot of nine Ku Klux Klan related items, a panorama photo of the Dallas Ku Klux Klan from 1924 and a cast iron Klansman that’s just under five inches tall, with the inscription K.I.G.Y., which stands for “Klansman I Greet You,” on the bottom. Although the Ku Klux Klan artifacts might be better categorized as white history, or at least the white reaction to black life and history in America, Johnson was insistent that the artifacts are part of what’s called Black Americana.
“[It’s not the white experience] when the victims were black and Jewish,” Johnson said. Quinn added that while “no one is positive on the KKK” (except its members, certainly) we can not deny the existence of the group.
“Hitler was a charismatic, loved leader before he became an [expletive],” Quinn said. “I don’t think as a society we can think that way. There’s more and more people who say we can’t talk about this….I think that we have to continue to remember.”
White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan are not a thing of the past, though. According to a Southern Poverty Law Center report from 2012, the number of these types of hate groups have risen 755 percent since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. Johnson said the people joining these groups must, then, be so frustrated that only a few generations before their ancestors had so much more agency over blacks.
“Look at this,” Johnson said, pointing at the sheet music again. “A coon will never sit in the president’s chair. You’ve got a black guy in the White House. Give me a break. You know how many white people hate that? And when your great granddaddy was a slave and all of the sudden you’ve gotten to the point where you can be the President of the United States. We weren’t supposed to go that far, so…I can understand how they would feel that way. Because there’s always going to be that factor that is negative.”
Quinn added that while there are uneducated people in the world, that should not deter institutions such as his from educating people and preserving history. “We are stewards of history and we have to care for this stuff,” Quinn said. “And we have to allow it to continue to exist so that we don’t go back.”
For Quinn, there are two choices: destroy the relics of the past because they contain painful truths about from whence we came or preserve the history in order not to repeat the past.]
“There’s typically two approaches to this. One is to destroy it all and one is to not forget,” Quinn said. “We don’t talk about it enough and you can’t talk about it enough, we have to remember. We have to not allow ourselves to forget…these are difficult subjects, but we talk about Nazi and World War II stuff and the polarity is no different here.”