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Exciting Daguerreotype at Sotheby’s in October

 America denied slaves humanity–yet recognized and recorded their humanity. In this one photograph, we might end our short search for slavery by gazing full upon:

the hypocrisy inherent in the institution,
the paradox that pervaded the American dream,
the essential issue of the Civil War.
                                                                                                                                                                                             -Howard McManus, The History Broker
 

An exceedingly exciting daguerreotype is up for auction at Sotheby’s NYC in October. Unsigned, the image is of an African American male worker steadying what must have been one of the owner’s prized steers. The Sotheby listing forefronts the worker, but the original intent of the image was to feature the steer. Howard McManus, owner of The History Broker shop in Salem, Virgina, held the piece when it was in the original frame that centered the beast and obscured the man’s face. On his website, McManus reads great significance into the obscuration, taking it as evidence of the inhumanity of the white Americans who violently perpetuated the slave system and regarded man and animal as property “to be bought, sold, worked, and bred.” Viewed fully, McManus argues that the image contradicts the indecent logic of the slave system by in fact recording the humanity of the worker.

Though unsigned, the daguerreotype is thought possibly to be the work of Montgomery  P. Simmons. McManus notes in his description that Simmons operated a daguerreian gallery in Philadelphia in the 1840s.  In 1849, while wintering in Charleston, South Carolina, Simmons won a silver medal prize at the Fair of the South Carolina Institute. McManus speculates that the daguerreotype now up for auction was commissioned as a result of winning that prize.

Whatever the exact circumstances of its creation, it is a fine work that sits within an important history of occupational daguerreotypes and gives a fascinating glimpse into the life of a nineteenth-century African American worker. Sotheby’s has estimated the hammer-price of this cased half-plate daguerreotype, with hand-coloring, produced circa 1849,  at $15,000 to $25,000. The exhibition is open September 28th through October 1st; the auction takes place October 2nd in two sessions.

 

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