Just What is an Ethnographic Art Auction?

You may have noticed that in the past year, Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church has had a series of Ethnographic Art Auctions. You may be asking yourself, “What exactly are Ethnographic Arts?” These are objects created by indigenous groups such as Native Americans, Africans, Pre-Columbians, and Oceanic Islanders. In short, they are the items many call “tribal art.”

These items include those made for religious and secular use within these cultures such as masks, figural sculptures, architectural elements, textiles, clothing, instruments, jewelry, furniture, and many more. Sometimes the items are decorative or made specifically for sale, and at other times the objects are used by the people themselves.

As with all art, there are varying degrees of craftsmanship, history, and desirability among dealers and collectors that affect auction values. One of the things collectors look for most is a history of appropriate cultural use. These signs may vary from the way an object is painted to how the holes on a mask or the facial features of a statue have worn over time; all can have a huge effect on auction value.

Quinn’s Auction Galleries has notably been selected to sell the Inventory and Collection from the Merton D. Simpson Estate. This Estate boasts an important collection of African, Oceanic, and Native American art in addition to a vast collection of fine art. Part 1 took place on October 1 of this year, there will, however be additional opportunities to see and bid on this important group of objects. Join us for Part 2 on December 3, 2016 and more in Spring 2017.

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Fox 5 DC February 2016

FALLS CHURCH, Va. – The Howard Wolverton Collection of Black Americana featuring artifacts and treasures of Black American history will be auctioned off Thursday in Falls Church. The collection includes items reminiscent of our country’s shameful past of hatred and racism. Jacob Johnson is the conservator and the appraiser of this collection. “The collection originated in East Orange, New Jersey,” he explained. “It originated with Howard Wolverton, who was a history teacher for predominately black students in high school there.” This collection contains more than 2,000 relics ranging from books and photos along with chains and branding irons that might be a little more difficult for people to absorb. “There are items that I have a difficult time dealing with,” said Johnson. “The shackles, the branding iron – I have a difficult time with those things. It is important because that is American history. It is the dark side of American history that many people would not accept and want to forget. But guess what? It’s part of history and we should be proud of our history. We are Americans.” For some, these items can bring out a lot of emotion. “I see people who almost draw tears,” Johnson said. “When you see how somebody was shackled, it brings tears to some people’s eyes. Can you imagine being branded with a branding iron? It’s horrific.” The pieces in this collection date from the late 1700s to the 1960s. “There are those people who don’t believe that these things should even exist any longer and there are those people who will buy them to destroy them,” Johnson told us. “It is very significant that we remember who built the country, how it was built, and it’s our history. It is everybody’s history. It is not just black people. It is American history and we cannot deny it.”

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Washington Post February 2016

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One look and you gasp.

There’s a postcard from Dover, Del., of a shirtless black man being whipped in front of a crowd of white boys and men.

“THIS IS THE WAY WE DO ’EM UP HERE,” the sender wrote on the back, amid the more standard postcard pleasantries of 1938.

There are heavy, iron handcuffs and their double-sided key.

A branding rod with the letter J. Both used on humans.

And there is sheet music for a jaunty tune called “There’ll Never Be A Coon Sit In The Presidential Chair.”

All of these items will be open to bidding at Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Virginia this week, part of a 2,000-piece collection of black Americana.

It’s a trend in the collecting world — buying up these Aunt Jemima cookie jars, pieces of the human slave trade and literature from our country’s shameful past.

Some people buy them to get them out of circulation, to prevent the children of today and adults of tomorrow from ever seeing the way we treated other humans. And to keep racists from having palpable totems of their twisted beliefs.

But like Nazi or Holocaust memorabilia, it’s complicated.

When Matthew Quinn, executive vice president of the auction house, asked his webmasters to post the collection they said, “ ‘We can’t post this stuff,’ ” he told me. “I told them we have to. This is our history.”

Yes, it’s our history — and it’s awful. But there’s one important lesson to history: We must never forget it.

And I’m not just talking about never forgetting the Big Baddies — plantation owners, human slave traders and the like. It’s easy to believe we’re nothing like them.

The items that are part of this collection — the caricature salt and pepper shakers, the cereal trading cards of awful slave scenes that kids got with their breakfast, the Currier & Ives prints ridiculing black Americans that were displayed on the walls of the turn-of-the-century everyman like Thomas Kincade prints are hung today — remind us how accepted such bile had been.

Racism ran — and still runs — through every thread of society.

“You can’t talk about it enough,” said Jacob B. Johnson III, the antiques dealer and appraiser who brought the collection to Quinn’s. “As a society, we can’t ever forget.”

Johnson was friends with the collector, Howard Wolverton, a New Jersey high school history teacher who used the memorabilia as part of his curriculum.

“He was a white man who believed in teaching American history — all of it,” Johnson said.

Ignoring how casually America ridiculed and belittled black Americans — from household products with the N-word in the name to home decor that celebrated slavery — isn’t telling the whole story, Wolverton believed.

And his collection is an amazing, cross-class indictment of America’s original sin.

“None of this was made to be collected,” Quinn said. “Whether we like it or not, it’s American culture on display.”

And along with the despicable, the collection has the celebratory, which itself becomes sad.

Wolverton, who died in 2005, had what may be the only surviving tintype — like a metal photo — of William Tillman.

Never heard of him?

That’s part of America’s racism, too.

Tillman was one of the Civil War’s great maritime heroes. He was a steward and cook aboard the merchant schooner S.J. Waring when it was boarded by confederate privateers. Being the only crew member allowed to walk freely (they needed his help), Tillman staged a one-man attack in the dead of night to kill the pirate captain and turn the ship around, back to New York.

His valor got him a $6,000 reward from the government, newspaper accolades and a spot in P.T. Barnum’s show, where he regaled his heroism.

If a white man pulled that kind of coup, we’d be driving on roads named after him.

There’s also plenty of original material from Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, the musical prodigy who composed “The Battle of Manassas” and wowed Americans, including Mark Twain, with his astonishing musical genius. He could perfectly mimic any sound, he learned Beethoven’s 3rd Concerto in one afternoon, then played the entire piece with his back to the piano — treble with his left hand, bass with his right. In his shows, he would play “Fisher’s Hornpipe” with one hand, “Yankee Doodle” with the other, all while also singing “Dixie.”

Never heard of him either?

Yes, forgetting, ignoring and sometimes erasing the strength, heroics, bravery and fortitude of black Americans is also part of America’s continuing racism today.

And how different, really, is the 1938 public whipping in Delaware from the videos we see on a regular basis of black Americans beaten, harassed and killed by police officers today? Or the racist song of Oklahoma frat boys — “There will never be a N-word in SAE”? Or the Arizona girls who thought it would be funny to spell the N-word out on their T-shirts? We’ve already forgotten.

Author credit: Petula Dvorak

Featured in the Washington Post on Tuesday, February 16, 2016. See the original post here.

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Washington Post, September 2015

In rare papers up for auction, Jackie Kennedy makes an inscrutable heroin joke

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Jackie Kennedy is known for her elegant, tasteful transformation of the White House interiors, but a new cache of papers up for auction offers a rare peek at the nitty gritty aspects of prettying up the presidential digs — as well as the former first lady’s wicked sense of humor.

In letters, drawings, and other items being sold by Virginia-based Quinn’s Auction Galleries mostly from the estate of James Bernard West, the Camelot-era White House chief usher who died in 1983, Kennedy shows an attention to the aesthetics of even the humblest working spaces. In one missive, she instructs West to make changes to make the press room look tidier, including possibly adding shelves and trash cans for the sloppy men of the Fourth Estate — though the first lady admitted it was an uphill battle. “That room will never be ideal as they leave their cubbys messy,” she said of the scribes.

Letters cover mundane details, from the kinds of trash cans she wants in public areas to the positioning of dog beds and light fixtures, with the occasional flash of the first lady’s gently acerbic wit. In the West Foyer, for example, Kennedy asks West to remove a gold trophy: “it looks like the prize one would give to a lady driving champion,” she writes.

Another moment of Kennedy’s levity comes in a watercolor poster (estimated to draw as much as $3,000) she made for West in 1971, well after the family’s departure from the White House. In honor of West’s visit to the family’s home in New York, Kennedy drew a faux “wanted” sign advertising for a chief usher for their Manhattan digs. Among the duties of the job — those presumably those handled by West during the family’s White House years — included “waltz,” “bulldoze,” “winetaste,” “intercept dignitaries” and “forge signatures.”

And then another task that sounds like some kind of inside joke: “take resident kindergarten on field trip to heroin withdrawal center.” Hmm.

Matt Quinn, Executive Vice President of the auction company, says that while there is plenty of Kennedy memorabilia out there, many of the pieces on the auction block offer a rare, intimate look at the storied family. “To find something that’s this personal — it’s an honor,” he says.

The auction takes place online and live in Quinn’s in Falls Church on Thursday night.

This article was originally featured in the Washington Post on September 9, 2015. Source credit: Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.

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Arlington Magazine, August 2015

Restaurant Critic Phyllis Richman’s Cookbook Collection Goes to Auction Proceeds from the Aug. 12 sale at Quinn’s Auction House in Falls Church will benefit the Parkinson’s Foundation.



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Have you ever wondered what a restaurant critic cooks at home? If you head to Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church on Wednesday, you’ll find a wealth of answers from The Washington Post’s longtime food editor and restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman.

Nearly 200 cookbooks from Richman’s private collection will hit the auction block, including many first editions and signed copies with authors’ inscriptions to the legendary food writer, who recently chronicled her culinary adventures in Arlington for this magazine.

The collection heading to auction includes the first-edition volume of The French Menu Cookbook from 1970, and a 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking. There are also several books on Jewish and kosher cooking, including Jewish Cooking in America by noted cookbook author and journalist Joan Nathan.

I also spotted a copy of the kids’ book title Cool Careers for Girls in Food—an especially resonant addition in light of this biting commentary that Richman penned for the Post about a Harvard dean who declined to admit her to the school’s urban planning program for fear that her studies would leave her unable to fulfill her responsibilities as a wife and mother. (The food world is ever grateful to that dean, given that Richman ended up pursuing a career in food journalism instead.)

The sale will also include copies of Richman’s own mystery novels, The Butter Did It and Murder on the Gravy Train, for $10 each.

Also on the auction block: several commemorative plates from the many James Beard Foundation dinners Richman attended during her career. Each of the plates, from 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997 and 1998, has a design relating to the theme of that year’s dinner.

The preview begins at 10 a.m. this Wednesday, and the auction begins at 6 p.m. Quinn’s Auction Galleries are located at 360 South Washington St. in Falls Church. Proceeds will benefit the Parkinson Foundation of the National Capital Area.

This article originally appeared online August 10, 2015 in Arlington Magazine, authored by Jennifer Sergent.

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Washington’s Top News, March 2015

A collection of Martin Luther King mementoes goes on sale

An impressive collection of items related to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will go up for auction in Falls Church on Thursday, just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama.

UPDATE – March 12, 2015 7:55 pm

WASHINGTON — The auction has closed and the 16 items sold for a total of $99,668.

The LBJ condolence letter to Coretta Scott King sold for $60,000, twice the price of the highest auction sale of a President Johnson signature.

EARLIER: March 6, 2015 1:28 am

WASHINGTON — An impressive collection of items related to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will go up for auction in Falls Church, Virginia on Thursday, March 12.

The items are owned by Stoney and Shirley Cooks, of Hyattsville, Maryland, who were both involved in the civil rights movement. Stoney was a college student in Indiana when he became part of a delegation of students who decided to travel to Selma for the march, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated last weekend.

“Two days after Bloody Sunday, Stoney Cooks with three white people were driving through Alabama, just like we were free and cavalier. I say it was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, you know — a black guy, riding south, heading to Selma, oblivious to all that was going on,” Stoney told WTOP.

Stoney thought he would be in the South for a week, but he never returned to college. He wound up working with King as a staffer at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“SCLC was a movement. There was no librarian, no one trying to get a copy of everything for SCLC’s history,” he said. So he began collecting things, including handwritten notes of King’s that are about to be sold.

The item the Cooks are selling that is getting the most attention is a letter many would probably assume is on display in a museum. It’s the letter President Lyndon Johnson sent Coretta Scott King after her husband was assassinated.

Written April 5, 1968, on White House stationery, it includes this pledge: “We will overcome this calamity and continue the work of justice and love that is Martin Luther King’s legacy and trust to us.” The letter was given to Shirley Cooks by her brother, singer and activist Harry Belafonte.

Asked why they chose not to donate it to a museum, Stoney said, “Our conclusion was the auction is the best approach.”

But he added: “This document would be nice — the Johnson document — if it ended up at a major institution (such as) the new African-American Museum (under construction in D.C.) or the Johnson Library in Texas.”

The auction, by Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, had been scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 5, but because of the snow, it has been moved to 6 p.m. Thursday, March 12.

“The Lyndon Johnson letter is estimated at $120,000 to $180,000,” says Matthew Quinn. “Bidding will start at $60,000 and go from there. We do have interest from institutions, from private individuals, and only Thursday night will tell.” “We have the opportunity to sell valuable objects all the time, but to be able to hold a piece of history in our hands — it’s very humbling.”

Among other items to be sold is a guest book from King’s wake at Spelman College. Quinn estimates its value at between $4,000 and $6,000.

“It’s probably one of the more compelling items and it’s really hard to come up with an estimate for an object that really isn’t signed by anybody significant. There’s no title page to it; there’s nothing telling us that this is what it is. It’s an object of great magnitude, but it’s hard to put a number on that. The bidders will certainly be the ones to tell us what that’s worth.”

Original article found here.

Author credit: Michelle Basch

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Washington Post, September 2014

Auction action: A 1960 guitar with a D.C.- area history fetches a pretty penny

Lots of people figured the 54-year-old Gibson Les Paul electric guitar would fetch more than its $20,000 to $30,000 pre-auction estimate, but no one knew how much more.

The answer: a lot. Two Saturdays ago, Gil Southworth Jr. paid $140,000 for the guitar I wrote about recently. Add in the premium paid to Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church and the price tag came to $165,200. Why, with that money, Gil could have bought 1,652 brand-new $100 ukuleles (a sobering thought).

Gil is from Bethesda. He’s a guitar dealer, owner of Southworth Guitars, which had a shop on MacArthur Boulevard and then Old Georgetown Road before moving to the Web. His customers have included Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Tom Petty.

“I’ve bought and sold almost 100 original Sunburst Les Pauls, but I’m a nut for them, too,” said Gil, 58. “I’m my own worst customer, being a collector-dealer. I could probably sell this guitar right now and make a good piece of change on it. But I’m paralyzed by the terrifying beauty of it. My intention is to keep it.”

Gil said he was drawn to this one for a couple of reasons. It’s actually painted in “chocolate sunburst” colors, a rarer finish than regular sunburst. More importantly, it’s an exceptionally local guitar: purchased for $320 at Giant Music in Falls Church by a teenage Harry Ryan, played in a Northern Virginia band, and stored for decades under Harry’s bed before he decided to auction it.

HANDOUT PHOTO:   Harry Ryan (left) and Gil Southworth, Jr., with the 1960 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst guitar that Gil had just bought at auction at Quinn's Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va., on Sept. 13, 2014. Harry is the guitar's original owner. It went for $140,000.   (Courtesy of Quinn's Auction Galleries)

HANDOUT PHOTO:
Harry Ryan (left) and Gil Southworth, Jr., with the 1960 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst guitar that Gil had just bought at auction at Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va., on Sept. 13, 2014. Harry is the guitar’s original owner. It went for $140,000.
(Courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries)



“I don’t recall ever buying one that I knew was bought new at a store in the D.C. area,” Gil said. “Of all the ones I’ve bought — and I’ve bought them all over the world — just to buy one that had that localness really turned me on.”

A self-described “guitar pinhead,” Gil has been getting turned on by vintage musical gear since he was a 10th-grader at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. He’d mow the occasional lawn or shovel snow for cash, then peruse the teen swap column in the Evening Star newspaper. One day, Gil noticed that someone was selling a Fender Tremolux head — part of a guitar amplifier — for $50, half of what that typically went for. He bought it, then sold it for $90 — his first transaction.

“Oh lawnmower, see you later, man,” Gil said with a laugh. He next bought a 1963 Gibson ES330 for $100 and sold it for $145.

Every penny Gil made was reinvested in guitars to flip. He was “a guitar shark” after that.

“I was always just a psycho,” he said. High school friends would ask whether he would be going to that weekend’s kegger, and he’d have to tell them, “No, I gotta go to Baltimore to get this blue [Gibson] SG.”

There was a time when vintage guitars went for crazy money, sold to baby boomers flush with cash and eager to emulate their rock-and-roll heroes. Mint condition Les Paul Sunbursts were fetching close to $400,000. Then in 2007, the bottom fell out of the market.

“Everybody was so heartbroken,” Gil said. Not him.

“Not that I didn’t lose money on about 150 guitars. I sold guitars for eight grand that I paid 15 and 16 grand for in the bubble. That was a little tiresome. But I was thinking: ‘You know what? Too bad the bubble broke. But I’m only in it for 50 bucks.’

“I paid 50 bucks for the Tremolux head, and I never took a job after that.”

Gil has a coincidental connection to the Les Paul’s previous owner. His mother, Dorothy, and sister, Barbara, both worked at the Army Map Service, where Harry Ryan worked.

Gil’s new purchase has a few issues. The original pickups were removed, and the frets are worn down. Gil will fix that. In the manner of an art restorer, he will take fret wires from a 1959 or 1960 Gibson Melody Maker guitar — he owns about 45 — and transplant them to the Les Paul.

And he owns guitars equipped with the desirable “Patent Applied For” humbucking pickups that were originally in the Les Paul but were swapped out years ago.

“I don’t like to take parts off of one guitar and put them on another, but that is what’s going to have to happen,” Gil said. “One of my guitars is going to have to take it for the team. I just haven’t decided which one.”

When he’s done all that, the guitar will sing again.

Original article found here.

Author credit: John Kelly

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