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Johnson Publishing Photo Archives bought for $30M

Four Foundations Team Up to Buy the Historic Archives, which will partially be donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Crusader Staff Report

Johnson Publishing Company’s vast photo collection has been sold to the J. Paul Getty Trust for $30 million, according to a court filing made public late Wednesday.

After several days of taking bids at the Chicago law firm of Fox Swibel Levin & Carroll, a court hearing to approve the sale was scheduled at 11 a.m. at the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop, according to Gabe Fried, CEO at Hilco Streambank, the agent hired to run the auction.

The winning bid is higher than the $12.6 million price that was expected for the collection. Johnson Publishing Company in 2014 decided to sell the collection, hoping to to get at least $46 million, but no auction was ever held until this month.

Four foundations- the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, and the MacArthur Foundation—came together to buy the archive in just a week to keep it from disappearing into private hands. They plan to donate it to the National Museum of African American History of Culture in Washington, DC; the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles; and other cultural institutions.

“We’re thrilled with the outcome,” Ford Foundation president Darren Walker said in a statement. “This archive is a national treasure and one of tremendous importance to the telling of black history in America. We felt it was imperative to preserve these images, to give them the exposure they deserve and make them readily available to the public.”

According to the New York Times, the consortium came together just last week after Walker and Elizabeth Alexander of the Mellon Foundation learned of the impending auction and rapidly emailed one another to hatch a plan. After they brought on two more foundations and gained approval from their respective boards, they cast the winning bid. “I think we cannot even fully measure what it is going to mean to have these images available,” Alexander said.

The collection includes rare images of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nat King Cole, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Aretha Franklin and numerous prominent Black celebrities, politicians and civil rights activists. The collection includes the Pulitzer-Prize winning photo of Coretta Scott King and daughter Bernice attending the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

In June, Johnson Publishing filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy after years of decline. On July 17, the company began auctioning its photo collection to pay off its massive debts. The auction continued for another week before it ended on July 24.

Founded by John H. Johnson, Johnson Publishing Company for decades produced Ebony and Jet magazines from its iconic headquarters on Michigan Avenue. The photos that were sold graced the pages of Ebony and Jet for decades.

Johnson died in 2005, leaving the company with his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice. In 2010, Rice sold the building that served as the company’s headquarters. In 2016, Johnson Publishing sold Ebony and Jet to a Texas firm, ending and era for the family-owned dynasty.

The auction was held at the offices of Fox Swibel Levin & Carroll, 200 West Madison Street. Qualified buyers were also allowed to bid on the collection by telephone. Fried indicated that the auction had a bid as high as $13 million before the winning offer. The sale is scheduled to close on Friday, July 26, 2019.

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