A collection of photos from Ebony and Jet magazines is auctioned off for $30 million

Posted at 4:10 PM, Jul 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-25 18:10:51-04

An archive of over 4 million historic photos from Ebony and Jet magazines was sold at auction Thursday for $30 million to a group of foundations.

The Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will donate the archive to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Getty Research Institute and other leading cultural institutions for “the public benefit to ensure the broadest access for the general public and use by scholars, researchers, journalists, and other interested parties,” according to the Smithsonian.

Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute, said the foundations were concerned about the public accessibility of the collection as well as the need to keep it preserved for scholars and future generations.

The acquisition is pending court approval and the sale closing. The auction was held in order for Johnson Publishing, the magazines’ former parent company and owners of the photo archive, to pay its debtors after filing for bankruptcy in April.

Though it’s unclear when the photos will be on public display, Miller said that the next step is inspecting all the materials and making sure all of the archives are properly documented so they can be digitized.

The history of the modern African-American experience

The archive contains photos from 1945 to 2015, with about 1 million printed images, 3 million negatives and contact sheets, and several thousand hours of video footage. In total, the collection is worth about $47 million.

“There is no greater repository of the history of the modern African-American experience than this archive,” said James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. “Saving it and making it available to the public is a great honor and a grave responsibility.”

Some photos have never been printed and thus never seen by the public. Very few have been digitized. But the collection holds, among many more prized photos of black legends, the 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Coretta Scott King and her daughter at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.

“This iconic and unique collection will stand the test of time, documenting an essential part of American history over an extraordinary period,” MacArthur President Julia Stasch said.

Ebony and Jet helped shape US history

Ebony and Jet magazines were once pinnacles of black American culture. Their photographs were windows into intimate moments of black celebrities, and they were known for their everyday depictions of middle class black life, especially Ebony magazine.

Both Jet and Ebony still exist, though only Ebony continues to produce a print product.

“Ebony and Jet magazine helped shape our nation’s history, allowing Americans — of all colors — to see the full panorama of the African American experience,” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and secretary of the Smithsonian. “Together, our organizations will ensure these images, stories and the history of these publications are well-preserved and available to the public and future generations.”