Saint-Paul auction raises questions about market for images that dehumanize blacks

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A North St. Paul auction house’s plan to auction a collection of racist depictions of black domestic workers raises questions about the ethics of disseminating and promoting the sale of historical images and dehumanizing.

Items on offer Monday night by Luther Auctions, which describes itself as Minnesota’s largest family-owned auction house, include a set of seven ceramic cookie jars depicting cartoonish depictions of black women and domestic workers, as well as groups of small ceramic figurines and wall art.

Owner Tracy Luther sells the collection on behalf of an elderly woman from the Saint-Paul area, who collected it during her lifetime. The woman now resides in a retirement home. She and Luther are white. Luther said he saw a distinction between these items, which he described as “dime store” memorabilia from the 1930s and 1940s, and items that other auction houses across the country sell, which he openly considers racist and that he would not deal with.

“In Americana auctions all over the country, there are slave-era chains and things like that, that we wouldn’t have anything to do with,” he said. “This particular thing is in this folk art, this kind of cute chord.”

However, Christopher Lehman, professor of ethnic studies at St. Cloud State University, said the entire operation is still raising red flags.

“These commercial products are no longer manufactured today, as the people responsible for making them no longer wanted to capitalize on the images and the Jim Crow they represented,” Lehman wrote. “So the fact that this auction house wants to profit in 2021 – just 156 years after legal slavery and less than sixty years after Jim Crow – is worrying to say the least.”

Lehman said that by portraying black slaves and domestic workers as smiling, simple and subservient, the cartoons created nostalgia for slavery and the Jim Crow era and erased the brutality and inhumanity of how Blacks were treated in these systems.

Lehman auctioned the pieces tonight “the commercial equivalent of public statues celebrating Confederation.”

“The figurines and statues were made long after the pre-war or Civil War era, but they are in their own way tributes to the slave south,” he wrote in an email to Sahan Journal.

The auction house holds auctions – exclusively online since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – every Monday evening. Past auction items have included sports and military memorabilia, vintage furniture, jewelry, paintings, musical instruments and guns.

Jennifer Marshall, professor of art history at the University of Minnesota, took issue with the auction house labeling this particular collection of folk art, which is not mass produced, as these pieces. seem to have been. The folk art genre in general, she said, often tries to capitalize on the exoticism of immigrant and non-white cultural production.

“Folk art is a label that drives up prices because it often connects to non-white or non-prescriptive manufacturers,” Marshall wrote. In this case, the manufacturers are producers of consumer goods, but the subject of figurative ceramic pieces is not white.

The question of what to do with these kinds of racist portrayals of black Americans has divided opinion over the years. Several years ago, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that, like his mother before him, he collected racist memorabilia for the purposes of study, analysis and criticism.

Tracy noted that collectors of these types of memorabilia from her auction house are not exclusively white, and Lehman wrote that it is not uncommon for “anti-racist activists to collect these items in an attempt to save them.” racist use ”.

But while numbers like these don’t necessarily have to be destroyed or completely removed from the public realm, there is an argument to be made that white-owned commercial auction houses and collectors shouldn’t be pulling the plug. profit from their sale.

“It would be more ethical for the company to sell the figurines to museums or educational institutions committed to using the merchandise as teaching aids for courses on the country’s ugly history or slavery and Jim Crow,” Lehman wrote. “It would be even more ethical for the company to donate the figurines to these places for free and not take advantage of them at all.”

Some auction houses have started to think about the ethics of handling items that have been taken or caricatured by marginalized groups. That’s true in the Twin Cities, where St. Paul-based Revere Auctions earlier this year helped facilitate the return of a sacred birch bark roll to the White Land nation.

But Tracy, at least at this point, sees it differently.

“That’s what I do,” he said. “I sell stuff. I sell things. I sell it for a commission and so on. I consider it to be American folk art. I don’t think of taking advantage of the bad story.

However, Tracy said he would think twice before selling similar collections in the future.

“I’m just trying to feed my family,” he said. “I’m not trying to hurt anyone.”

For Marshall, auction houses like his and others have an opportunity to right historical wrongs in their dealings with these kinds of memories.

“Racist collectibles like these repeat, at least symbolically, the structure of the 19th-century slave auction: they put black bodies up for sale, and they (almost always) collect and distribute the profits between them. non-black resellers, ”Marshall wrote.

“There is an opportunity to repeat this structure, but with a difference focused on repairs,” she continued. “I have to hope that the auction house or sellers in this case part with any profits made and reinvest the proceeds from the sale into black artist communities.”


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