St. Cloud State University ethnic studies professor Christopher Lehman says the types of items offered Monday by Luther Auctions are "the commercial equivalent of public statues celebrating the Confederacy." Credit: Courtesy Christopher Lehman

Plans by a North St. Paul auction house to auction off a collection of racist depictions of Black domestic workers is raising questions about the ethics of disseminating and profiting off of the sale of historic, dehumanizing images. 

The items to be offered Monday night by Luther Auctions, which describes itself as the largest family-owned auction house in Minnesota, include a set of seven ceramic cookie jars featuring cartoonish depictions of Black women and domestic workers, along with similarly themed groups of small ceramic figures and wall art.  

Owner Tracy Luther is selling the collection on behalf of an elderly St. Paul-area woman, who gathered it over her lifetime. The woman now resides in a nursing home. Both she and Luther are white. Luther said he sees a distinction between these items, which he described as “dime store” memorabilia from the 1930s and 1940s, and items that other auction houses around the country sell, which he considers overtly racist and would not handle. 

“At Americana auctions throughout the country, there are slave era shackles and things like that, that we wouldn’t have anything to do with,” he said. “This particular stuff is in that folk art, cute kind of deal.”

However, St. Cloud State University ethnic studies professor Christopher Lehman said the entire operation still raises red flags.

“These commercial products are no longer produced today, because the people responsible for making them did not want to capitalize on the images and the Jim Crow they represented anymore,” Lehman wrote. “So, the fact that this auction house wants to profit off them in 2021 — only 156 years after legal slavery and fewer than sixty years after Jim Crow — is disturbing, to say the least.”

Lehman said that by depicting Black enslaved people and domestic workers as smiling, simple, and servile, the caricatures created nostalgia for the slavery and Jim Crow eras and erased the brutality and inhumanity of how Black people were treated in those systems. 

Lehman called the pieces up for auction this evening “the commercial equivalent of public statues celebrating the Confederacy.”

“Both the figurines and the statues were made long after the antebellum or Civil War era, but they are tributes to the slaveholding South in their own ways,” he wrote in an email to Sahan Journal.

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

University of Minnesota art history professor Jennifer Marshall took issue with the auction house’s characterization of this particular collection as folk art, which is not mass produced, as these pieces appear to have been. The genre of folk art in general, she said, often tries to profit off of exoticizing immigrant and non-white cultural production.

“‘Folk art’ is a label that drives up prices because it often connects to non-white or non-normative makers,” Marshall wrote. In this cases, the makers are mass-market commodities producers, but the subject matter of the figurative ceramic pieces is non-white.”

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

Tracy noted that collectors of this type of memorabilia from his auction house are not exclusively white, and Lehman wrote that it is not unusual for “anti-racist activists to collect these objects in an effort to save them from racist use.”

But while figures like these needn’t necessarily be destroyed or removed completely from the public sphere, there is an argument to be made that white-owned commercial auction houses and collectors should not be profiting off of their sale.

“It would be more ethical for the business to sell the figurines to museums or to educational facilities committed to using the merchandise as teaching tools for lessons on the country’s ugly history or slavery and Jim Crow,” Lehman wrote. “It would be even more ethical for the business to give the figurines to those places for free and not profit off them at all.”

Some auction houses have begun thinking about the ethics of how to handle items that have been taken from or caricaturize marginalized groups. That is true in the Twin Cities, where St. Paul-based Revere Auctions earlier this year helped to facilitate the return of a sacred birch bark scroll to the White Earth Nation.

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

“This is what I do,” he said. “I sell stuff. I sell things. I’m selling it for a commission and so on. I think of it as American folk art. I don’t think about profiting off of bad history.”

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

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

For Marshall, auction houses like his and others have an opportunity to right historical wrongs in their dealings with this kind of memorabilia. 

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

“There is an opportunity to repeat this structure, but with a difference bent on reparations,” she continued. “I should hope that the auction house or the sellers in this case divest of any profits made, and reinvest the proceeds of the sale into Black artists communities.”

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.