THE SMART COLLECTOR

Black Americana is widely collected

Posted April 15, 2011, at 9:37 p.m.
This early cast iron Mammy and Child mechanical bank brought $51,750 recently at Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, N.J.
Courtesy Photo | Bertoia Auctions
This early cast iron Mammy and Child mechanical bank brought $51,750 recently at Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, N.J.

Q: Any information on our collection of Mammy cast iron figures? There’s also one Pappy figure. I believe they’re door stoppers. They also may be banks because there’s an opening on the head of each one. They’re in perfect condition; no chips anywhere. How do we sell?

A: A photo sent shows seven cast iron figures in differing sizes. The reader adds that they are 24 inches, 18 inches and 10 inches high.

While the genre may not appeal to everyone, black Americana is widely collected. Covering all sorts of items tied to the black experience in America, black Americana amounts to a social history. Everything from slave-related items to printed fabric from the 1940s, paper items, salt and pepper shakers, cast iron doorstops — you name it — are snapped up.

Many originals are crude and absolutely beyond the bounds of today’s taste, but as relics pointing to how far we’ve come, they are embraced by many collectors, including celebrities and academics. Many big-ticket collectors are people of color.

Serious collectors pay high prices for historic, unique and significant items in top condition. Very old and rare pieces are fought over. In light of such interest, reproductions and fantasy items are a huge problem.

Original cast iron Mammy figures were made as doorstops. Others were made as banks. But they were never made as both. Can you see the red flags popping up? You should.

Iron doorstops have been collector favorites since the late1800s. Original cast iron Mammy doorstops were common up to World War II, and they have been copied since their heyday in the 1920s-1940s.

Original and authentic large full-figure cast iron Mammy doorstops sell for about $600 today at auction. A medium-size version in great condition is $250-$350.

Bertoia Auctions in New Jersey, www.bertoiaauctions.com, has earned a solid reputation for selling fine antique toys, especially cast iron. They also specialize in cast iron doorstops.

Jeanne Bertoia looked at the reader’s photo and said, “Nothing there looks legit.”

Smart collectors learn to read clues. In this case, start with the butler, or male figure. He was never made as a bank. In collecting lingo he’s a fantasy, something made up.

Now look at the art with this column, a circa 1884 Mammy bank sold at Bertoia. That unique Mammy is early and primitive, as is the child. Ones in the photo are all the same stock commercial figure: Mammy with hands on hips. There is no variation except size.

The auction figure has a smooth surface. The others are irregular, with small pits. Mold marks on the original are smoothed off; the new has sloppy joinings and rough edges.

Wear on the original is as it should be, along exposed edges where wear occurs naturally.

But condition of the new Mammies is too good. Smart collectors know that serious collectors demand top condition. But there is such a thing as too good a condition.

The writer sees no chips as a plus. A smart collector sees the lack of wear on a cast iron figure as a sign that it is either a fake or repainted.

Finally, Jeanne added, “All repros have a slot.” That explains the doorstop/bank combos. The goal for the new figures was, clearly, to hit all collector bases.

Bertoia thinks the reader’s figures date from the 1960s-1980s and probably were made in Taiwan. We found identical figures on eBay listed for $9.99-$15.99.

Q: I have a large collection of black Americana. I know some are quite rare. How do I find an appraiser in my area that is competent in this field? I know that celebrities collect. Would it be worthwhile to contact them? How would I do so? At some point I need to sell.

A: If you’re serious about selling, an appraiser may not be needed. Use due diligence when you pick an auction house; their specialist(s) can identify and price.

And if you’re selling, why limit yourself to celebrities? Auction guarantees the largest pool of buyers. Who knows? Celebrity collectors may bid.

First, be smart and educate yourself on the current going rate for what you have. Pay for short-term use to auction databases such as www.artfact.com and www.worthpoint.com. Use completed sales on eBay and free results on www.liveauctioneers.com. Google items by name. Note where similar items sold best.

If you still want to find an appraiser in your area, key AAA at www.appraisersassoc.org, the International Society of Appraisers at www.isa-appraisers.org or the American Society of Appraisers at www.appraisers.org.

AUCTION ACTION: A Mammy and Child cast iron mechanical bank that sold recently for $51,750 at Bertoia Auctions was made in 1884 by Kyser and Rex. Called mechanical because it has action, the bank’s movement has the woman lowering a spoon as the baby raises its legs while the coin drops inside.

COLLECTOR QUIZ

Q: How did the Mammy figure enter American culture?

A: She was first depicted in the late 1800s by white men in minstrel shows through a song, “Old Aunt Jemima.” Source: “The Art and History of Black Memorabilia” by Larry Buster. Now out of print.

Danielle Arnet will answer questions of general interest in her column. Send e-mails to smartcollector@comcast.net or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.

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