In Black Face

The good, the bad, and the ugly is the history of her collection

Mary Ella Williams Willis packs a flashlight, magnifying glass, comfortable shoes, and solid bargaining skills when heading out, often at 6 a.m., to scavenge for black memorabilia at thrift shops, antiques shows, and flea markets.

“When I started collecting medicine and syrup bottles in the ’70s, if [antiques] sellers had black memorabilia, you would have to ask for it,” says Willis, “and they’d bring it out from under the table.” Today, black memorabilia is a multimillion-dollar industry.

“As the knowledge of the role African Americans have played in American history expands, this increased interest and appreciation of the items that traveled with us along [our] journey has increased the value for these items,” says collector, consultant, and lecturer Philip J. Merrill of Baltimore-based Nanny Jack & Co. (www.nannyjack.com).

Every February for the last decade, Willis, 68, a retired teacher’s aide from Nashville, Tennessee, has welcomed the public into her Atlanta home to explore more than 2,000 international artifacts that adorn rooms devoted to sports icons, the Civil War, 18th century musicians, and slavery. Prices vary, from a soiled 1951 Ku Klux Klan hooded robe for $275 to an unopened box of Gold Dust washing powder for $59.

“There are not many people around who can guess the value of black memorabilia,” says Merrill, 43, who created the black memorabilia segment on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. “The auction houses won’t touch this field [because] there is no track record for comparable sales.

“Items associated with genealogy and the giants of black history, such as Frederick Douglass, are desirable now. Daguerreotypes of Frederick Douglass and John Brown have sold for $184,000 and $129,000, respectively.”

Willis estimates pottery made in the 1800s by a slave named Dave who signed his creations with an X, the common signature for slaves, is a rare find that can bring upward of $50,000.

In the next decade Merrill says artifacts will grow to include elements of hip-hop, black business, and historically black colleges and universities.

GETTING STARTED

  • Do research. It equips collectors with a historical perspective that can help them detect forgeries and better gauge market value. To further protect your investment, secure a dealer’s guarantee of authenticity in writing. Reputable dealers refund purchases found to be frauds. Merrill suggests ebay (www.ebay.com), www.afrigeneas.com, and www.genealogy.com.
  • Use resource guides. Books that assign dollar values to black memorabilia are often outdated before they leave the press. Refer to these guides: The Art and History of Black Memorabilia by Larry Vincent Buster (Clarkson Potter; $34.95), and Images in Black: 150 Years of Black Collectibles by Douglas Congdon-Martin (Schiffer Publishing; $24.95).
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