Johnson Publishing Company held a private auction of its prized photo archives in the Loop on Wednesday. Now, the wait begins for many to learn the identity of the buyer.
By Erick Johnson
Curiosity was building. The walk through the morning rush traffic in the Loop on deadline day led me and three young interns to a fancy glass skyscraper at 200 W. Madison Street. In five minutes the anticipated auction of Johnson Publishing Company’s vast photo collection would begin.
After securing our passes, we took the elevator to the 30th floor. When the doors flew open two people were waiting there for us. We were excited, but they weren’t. The press wasn’t invited inside the auction. Our morning rush to get there was for nothing.
We went to Starbucks on the ground level. The interns chatted about other people, movies and stuff I didn’t care too much about. I was still upset about being turned away from what I viewed was one of the most important chapters in the storied history of Ebony and Jet magazines.
On this humid summer day, someone will get their hands on four million prints and negatives that once made up Johnson Publishing Company’s treasure trove that for decades highlighted Black history and culture.
They would own the rights and the Pulitzer-Prize winning photo of Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice sitting in the pews at Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968. The photo of Muhammad Ali with Howard Cosell would also be theirs. So would the photo of Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton in front of the Hilton Hotel.
There is also the photo of Motown founder Berry Gordy at an airport with the original Supremes – Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Betty McGlown (Diana Ross came later). Sitting among the collection is the photo of Emmett Till, the 14-year old boy from the Chicago neighborhood of Woodlawn who was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman during a trip to Money, Mississippi.
The collection is all that’s left of Johnson Publishing Company, which filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in June, capping years of decline under Chairman Linda Johnson Rice, the daughter of founder John H. Johnson, who died in 2005. The company’s Ebony and Jet are on life support under ownership of the Texas firm, Clear View Group.
In 2015, Rice had the collection appraised for $46 million, but an auction was never held.
“It just needs to be in the hands of a place that can give it the exposure it deserves,” Rice told the New York Times this week. “It’s not right to sit on this for ourselves. It’s not doing that much good.”
With 275 creditors in its bankruptcy filing, the collection, once valued at $46 million is hoping to raise at least $12 million to pay off the company’s debts.
They provide a glimpse into a gilded era of a once thriving Black publishing company that made America proud with its 11-story headquarters on Michigan Avenue. As photos of Blacks were left out of daily newspapers and magazines, they filled the pages of Ebony and Jet editions that graced the coffee tables of millions of Black homes back in the day.
Now, they need a new owner. For months, visitors traveled to a faded brick warehouse on the West Side. An escort would lead them upstairs to a windowless room. They had to wear blue gloves before poring for hours through what is considered the most significant collection highlighting Black culture in the 20th century.
The private auction was held at Fox Swibel, which describes itself on its website as “Chicago’s leading boutique business law firm.” Many of the firm’s high-achieving lawyers graduated from prestigious law schools, including Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago. The firm’s only Black lawyer, Neville Reid is a partner in the firm who received his law and bachelor’s degrees from Harvard. As the firm’s bankruptcy lawyer, Reid is handling the auction of the photos.
The private auction began at 10 a.m. Because it was off limits to the press, the Crusader was unable to see anyone attending the event. By Crusader 5 p.m. press time Wednesday, Reid said the auction was still going on.
“A winning bidder has not yet been identified, but we’ll continue the auction on Monday,” Reid said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a buyer by then.”