Selling our Soul: Priceless Black History Memorabilia on the Auction Block

Nathaniel Montague curated a private black history collection for nearly 50 years

Over forty years ago Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague built a career being a bold and courageous disc jockey by defying the barriers of institutional racism. In his era and in his field he was majorly noteworthy. But that was sometime ago. Today, at 84 years old Mr. Montague has regained media attention because he currently is in jeopardy of losing his $1 million collection of nearly 8,000 pieces of historic memorabilia and artifacts of Black life in America that he acquired over the past 50 years.
Montague’s collection of posters, art, music, signed Phyllis Wheatley books, Paul Laurence Dunbar writings, recordings, and more are no longer in his possession and are now at the mercy of bankruptcy court, which has thus far been lenient, but in about two weeks, all of his work could be auctioned off.

While Montague’s particular circumstance is garnering much attention, the loss of entire collections is actually not uncommon. The fact is, while many people that are aware of Montague’s story express sadness, there is hopelessness and little will to take action.

It is easier to say this now but in Montague’s case “the economics of collecting today did not exist in the past” says Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.  Collectors have to keep in mind the cost to maintain and preserve the work and those are the expenses that continue long past the initial purchase of a work.

In addition to the immense personal and financial loss for Mr. Montague, are the greater losses for the community.  The fact that his work could be separated and land in the homes of private collectors means that millions of potential viewers both locally and nationally may never have the opportunity to view the expanse of Montague’s collection in its entirety.  There is also the loss of research and educational opportunities for youth and scholars that come from having the work housed in local museums or libraries. The greatest loss is that the work will have little educational or research value if it is separated and privately owned.

Estate planning would have afforded Montague the opportunity to maintain control of his collection while selecting an institution to donate, will, or gift his work.  He would have known which of his works, if not all, were a fit for a particular museum or library.  

Dr. Muhammad indicated that the best possible solution would “be for the collection to be available to the public for the greatest educational value.”  However, the public may not have this opportunity.

It is clear that many people are still scratching their heads about why no institution has stepped up to purchase this collection, to preserve it and keep it in tact. The likely reason? "It’s very expensive. Situations like this are where the wealth gap between White America and Black America wreak havoc, because this demands enormous resources.”