Money: Black gold-dust

John Windsor on the rise of classic works by black authors
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The Independent Online
What shocks passers-by most about Britain's first black second- hand bookshop are the prices. As black people grow in appreciation of their literary heritage, the value of fine-condition first editions by key 20th century black novelists, poets and politicians has risen beyond pounds 100 and is still rising.

I sat with Robert Beckford in his shop, Souls of Black Folk, in Brixton, watching the faces of black and white shoppers who had spotted the price tags on the volumes balanced precariously against his window.

Paul Robson's autobiography, Here I Stand, pounds 65. The first American edition of James Baldwin's No Name in the Street, published as recently as 1972, also pounds 65. The first UK edition of Chester Himes's first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, written in prison in 1947, pounds 100.

Onlookers' jaws dropped. Mr Beckford smiled. "They've never seen books like these," he said.

In the ascendant are books by black authors who made their names during the Harlem Renaissance in Manhattan in the Twenties and Thirties, such as Baldwin, the novelist Ralph Ellison, poet Langston Hughes and Richard Wright (his novel Native Sun is worth pounds 500-pounds 600 with dust-jacket intact).

Also popular are books by post-war Pan-African political campaigners Marcus Garvey, George Padmore and contemporary women writers such as Terri MacMillan, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.

The ebullient Beckford has a string of academic qualifications, including an MA and an Oxford BSc in hotel management.When he is not bookselling or scouring bookshops and fairs for black titles, he is lecturing in tourism and business studies.

His customers are mainly black. Hitherto, the almost exclusively white British book trade has sold its black books almost exclusively to white collectors, many of them American.

In bookshops off Tottenham Court Road, Mr Beckford says, he has seen sky-high prices for black books, such as a first edition of Booker prize winner Ben Okri's poems, Flowers and Shadows, at pounds 275.

He has rocked the trade's boat by complaining in print that some white dealers are "stockpiling" black books - by which he means that some of those with black book sections are reluctant to sell him titles requested by his customers or send him their mail-order catalogues.

Second-hand black books, says Mr Beckford, are a new bandwagon set rolling by the increase in academic black studies courses and the emergence of black publishers such as The X Press, which is reprinting black American classics following the success in 1992 of its attention-grabbing black gangster thriller Yardie.

In the United States, the market for African-Americana is booming. At Swann's second annual auction in New York last month, a fine 1891 first edition of Magda, the first verifiable novel by an African-American woman, Emma Dunham Kelly, fetched $4,400 (pounds 2,665).

An 1867 second American edition of Clotelle, Or The Coloured Heroine, a first novel by an African-American man, sold for $2,000 (pounds 1,210). It is the story of the daughter of a US senator and his black mistress.

If you prefer to read the more salacious original version of 1853, in which Clotelle is the illegitimate daughter of no less than President Thomas Jefferson, buy The X Press's reprint, The President's Daughter.

In London, black film memorabilia attracts enthusiastic bidding. In Christie's South Kensington's next film poster sale on Monday (2pm), an 11in by 14in lobby card advertising the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, of 1927, in which Al Jolson sang the legendary "Mammy", is estimated at pounds 1,000 to pounds 1,500 (pictured left).

All collectors of black memorabilia have encountered the accusation of racism, to which their retort is "black history". Collectors, auctioneers and dealers use the term "blaxploitation" to describe collectables that reinforce black stereotypes. There are two lots of blaxploitation.

One is one-sheet film posters in the South Kensington sale. One lot, containing 32 posters for American films, including Shaft's Big Score, Superdude and The Klansman, is estimated at pounds 300 to pounds 500.

A big collection of "black ephemera" - advertising and packaging featuring black characters - fetched strong prices at Bonhams Chelsea in December. One of the 24 lots - three dozen advertising leaflets including well-worn images juxtaposing soap and black skin - made pounds 360, more than double the pounds 100-pounds 200 estimate. Still modestly priced in this country are what are disconcertingly flagged as "coon cards" at postcard fairs. Published before the war, these postcards are today un-PC.

There is no doubt about the racism of American cards depicting black people as apes. These cards cost pounds 7-pounds 8 from postcard dealers. John Pardoe, managing director of a London financial services company, has collected about 1,000 of them.

He regards them as social history, a natural addition to the rest of his collection - women's rights and animal rights postcards. "But," he says, "whereas you find Jews collecting even anti-semitic Judaica, I know of no black people who collect these cards. They are very sensitive about the whole thing."

Souls of Black Folk (Robert Beckford), Unit 2, The Electric Market Hall, inside Market Row, Brixton, London SW9 8JP (0171-738 4141).

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