Bidding Fierce for Pre-Civil War Cased Images of African Americans from the Jackie Napoleon Wilson Collection


An impressive selection of early and rare cased images of African Americans from the Jackie Napoleon Wilson collection were sold for record prices at Christie’s, New York on October 4, 2001. Wilson, a lawyer from the Midwest, began collecting photographs of black people in 1978, seeking to reclaim and champion a piece of his own heritage. His collection is historically based, documenting black life in mid-nineteenth century America with remarkable examples of some of the earliest photographic techniques, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes. Dating from 1845 to 1865, many of these photographs are extremely rare because, during the period prior to the Civil War and Emancipation, few black people in America had the means, leisure or freedom to have their own likenesses recorded in photographs. Ever since he began the painstaking process of amassing these small cased images, Wilson has thought of his collection as a teaching tool. He once explained, “I believed that the collection had the power to change not only how whites felt about blacks, but that it had the power to affect how blacks felt about themselves.” As early as 1983, three works from Wilson’s collection were exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Then, in 1995, he collaborated with the J. Paul Getty Museum to mount the exhibition, “Hidden Witness: African Americans in Early Photography,” which included 22 examples from the museum’s holdings and 44 from Wilson’s collection.

The very same 44 images were offered for sale at Christie’s on October 4th, many setting record or near record prices for cased images of their size and photographic process. What is more, the sale itself was an historic event, marking the first time that such a large number of photographs of black people had been offered publicly at a major photography auction. Of particular note was lot #72, “Portrait of a mother and child,” also known as “Madonna,” a sixth-plate tintype, circa 1860 that sold for $47,000 plus the buyer’s premium. A classic Madonna and child image, this tintype captures the serenity and fortitude of a young black woman holding her infant child in her arms. A ring on her finger glints with hand-painted gilt highlighting. This image was also featured on the cover of Wilson’s book, “Hidden Witness: African-American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War (1999).

Other noteworthy sales include lot #71, “Freemen of Color,” by William A. Pratt of Richmond, Virginia, a quarter-plate, hand-colored daguerreotype dating from 1850 of two well-dressed men, which sold for $26,000, plus the buyer’s premium. The sixth-plate, hand-colored daguerreotype of a nursemaid and child by R.G. Montgomery, also of Richmond, lot #56, sold for $17,000, plus the buyer’s premium. A half-plate ambrotype of a Southern townhouse, circa 1855 sold for a remarkable $8,500, plus the buyer’s premium.

In general, bidding was fierce throughout the sale, with many lots finding several bids from within the room, on order or on the telephone. The top three highest selling lots, mentioned above, were all sold to telephone bidders in the end. Of the 44 lots offered for sale, only 4 failed to find buyers. It is interesting to mention that prices were high across the board for daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes, in some cases blurring the typical price differential between the three related, although different photographic processes.

The vast majority of the 44 photographs offered for sale were taken by unknown makers. The most noteworthy photographer in the group was J.P. Ball, the black photographer who worked in Cincinnati, Ohio and Helena, Montana. His half-plate daguerreotype of a family portrait dating from 1845 (lot #95) sold for $4,500, plus the buyer’s premium. In addition to individual, family and wedding portraits, the subject matter of the works offered for sale included occupationals, black nursemaids with white children, civil war material, and white men with young black male servants. Finally, it is important to note that, in general, these were not large cased images. Rather they were of the most common size, mostly sixth plate and quarter plate cased images. Nevertheless, this sale of property from the Jackie Napoleon Wilson Collection marks a turning point in the demand for photographs of African Americans offered for sale at major auction houses. It will be interesting to see if similar collections are to be had at auction in the near future.

Written by Cheryl Finley.