NEW YORK, NY.-
On July 21st, a Maryland auction company offered more than 400 pieces of antique pottery. Among these was a piece of premium early 19th century Colonial American stoneware pottery. The estimated sale price of this pottery was $10,000 to $20,000. Interestingly, the same piece of premium Colonial American antique pottery was offered by a seller earlier in April for $500 on eBay. The pottery, painted in cobalt, says Coerlears Hook on one side and N. York on the other side. The seller pulled the piece of antique pottery from eBay after she received many private e-mail offers, before the bidding began.
So what changed? One word. The difference between the description of the same piece of pottery on eBay and in the upcoming auction is the colonial pottery artists ancestry is identified in the major Crocker Farm upcoming auction. He is Thomas Commeraw, an African-American potter and entrepreneur. His ancestry is indentified in this new description, and the value of his artwork was raised to be commensurate with its style, quality and history. And the current market. I discussed Thomas Commeraws artistry and ancestry previously here on Art Daily.
Is One of Americas Leading Potters Related to the Family of Potters who Owned Him as a Slave?
and Magnificent, Mysterious Designs in American Folk Art Revealed in African Iconography
The relationship of the value of art to historical identity and provenance is not new, but it is new in Colonial African-American art, because so many colonial artists are now being identified for the first time.
Art has historic value and monetary value. More often than not, the two go hand-in-hand, as noted in a recent article in The New York Times, The Curse of the Outcast Artifact, about how museums no longer accept from collectors donations of ancient artifacts, because of problematic cases of artifacts looted from their original worldwide places and nations. Recently, ancient artifacts have been returned to nations from Peru to Guatemala to Italy to Cambodia. The article noted that this is a problem for collectors, but collectors are worldly intelligent people who know that art provenance and value go hand-in-hand. That is true for ancient art, but it is also the case in valuing Colonial American art that has been misattributed?
Misattribution is common in Colonial American art because some art by Colonial African-Americans was not credited to them, because they had no national identity in colonial times. Even in major museums, art, especially pottery, has been credited to the colonials who owned the artist not to the artist who was African American. How this happened can be explained by the way in which African American artists were recruited as art workers, artists and artisans. Even though they had no legal or recorded status as citizens or even as people, they had artistic skills. One story showing how stoneware artists were stolen from the New York colony and made to work in the New Jersey colony illustrates the problem of misattribution.
On July 21st, the piece of stoneware by the African-American colonial artist, potter and entrepreneur sold for $22,000.
The modern descendants of New Jersey stoneware artists in this story gave me permission to tell the details. Its a story of secret American genealogy and slavery.
A premium American stoneware similar to the pottery that was auctioned is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. The Museums pottery jar is identified as Thomas Commeraw (active 1797-1819), and the description lists David Morgan (1797-1802, as the maker. This week the Metropolitan Museum announced that more people are viewing American Colonial decorative art; in the last fiscal year more visitors attended the Museums exhibits, including the newly renovated American Wing galleries that anytime previously in the 40 years since it has been tracking peoples attendance.
As more art is recovered and identified, the history is revealed. In the years leading up the American Revolutionary War of 1776 and the years immediately following, the finest American stoneware was made by German potters and African-American workers. Some stoneware workers, owned as slaves by the Germans and other Colonials were also skilled pottery artisans. Others were free workers. Their pottery, archaeological artifacts from the 1700s and early 1800s, has been discovered at the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan in New York City, where major German-American families, Crolius and Remmey and an African-American, Thomas Commeraw, had kilns. But only a few of the artisans and workers who were enslaved have been identified in New York and the southern states. Besides, they were often stolen, hidden and shipped to southern states, and did not remain in New York City.
Careful research shows how American colonial decorative folk art collides with American history, for example the history of slavery and slave trading.
The history of the Morgan branch of the New York pottery families is just beginning to be revealed. Captain James Morgan, a member of the New York City family, created pottery alongside the potters in New York and New Jersey. He owned South Amboy clay pits, established a stoneware factory in the Cheesequake area of New Jersey, and he and his extended family dominated the pottery industry in New Jersey in the mid-1700s soon after the earliest New Jersey potter, John Peter Kemple. So, in the years in the early 1800s after the Revolutionary War, Thomas Warne, Captain Morgans son-in-law; James Morgan, Jr., his son; and relatives and in-laws, Joshua Letts, Jacob Van Wickle, Branch Green and Xerxes Price operated potteries with skilled workers in South Amboy and Sayreville: the family in the Amboy region and Price in the Roundabout Sayreville area. David Morgan worked with Thomas Commeraw, an African-American potter and entrepreneur, on and off, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, as noted in the Journal of the Council for Northeast Archaeology.
The migration and uprooting of skilled African-American workers who were enslaved in New York City where they worked in the potteries adjoining the African Burial Ground and the New York shorefront to potteries in towns in upstate New York, New Jersey and other American Colonies is a lost story. One family in New Jersey has done the genealogy and retrieved the story of skilled pottery artisans who were enslaved.
This descendant said he retrieved the stories for their children and for future generations. This is the story he tells.
The story comes from a family whose ancestors were privates in Captain Morgans Regiment in Middlesex, New Jersey and who were veterans of the American Revolutionary War of Independence. Captain Morgans 2nd Regiment was later known as the Jersey Blues. The story says George Washington depended on the farm boys, teenagers, who were summer soldiers, who worked alongside their mothers and sisters during the year and re-enlisted in the war during the summers. The British soldiers based in New York raided New Jersey farms and these teenagers organized as a detached Minute Men regiment who defended their farms. The British sailed from New York waters and attacked New Jersey along the Raritan Bay coastline.
Captain James Morgans militia company was not only a mounted regiment, the Jersey Blue soldiers fought with well-equipped artillery. The mounted farmers fought alongside boatmen from ships along the Jersey shore.
The militia fought armed battles for their freedom on the Jersey shore, and captured many ships off the waters of New York. The familys ancestor, a soldier, married Captain Morgans daughter. Captain Morgan, the wealthy General of post-Revolutionary times, lived on a high bluff at Cheesequake Creek on a large plantation adjoining another large plantation in the family. Captain James Morgan Sr., who was born in 1734, died in 1784, at 50 years old; his wife lived to almost twice his age, to 96 years. Their son, Major General James Morgan, who became very wealthy, died in 1822. He served as a teenage Ensign (2nd Lieutenant) in his fathers Jersey Blues Militia Company.
But this is where the story changes and becomes controversial, though very relevant and historical, because the familys ancestor was not only a farmer but a sailor who later owned a colonial ship, a sloop. As an adult, in 1816, the ships owner transported not only potters clay from the Cheesequake mounds from New Jersey to New York, and pottery from New York to New Jersey and other places, but he transported skilled potters who were slaves. He transported them, he stole them from New York, hid them on the familys plantations, and then transported them to other American places that were starting potteries. He was caught in illegal activities that were typical in his time.
In the years after the American Revolutionary War during the early decades of the 1800s, New York, New Jersey and the New England states tried to extricate themselves from the slave trade and plantations. These states passed a statute in 1811, that no one could transport or ship any enslaved person from one state to another without his or her consent, and even if unbelievably the enslaved person consented, it was illegal to move an enslaved person from one state to another without identifying the persons name, age, sex, color and physical identifying stature.
Skilled artisans from one state were imported to work in other states, and similarities in the stoneware pottery from New York, New Jersey and the other states show this. But it was not only the skilled workers such as the German owners and employees who moved from place to place, but the skilled enslaved and free African-American artisans were also transported. Illegal, pirated transportation of enslaved people had always occurred, but by 1818, the states attempted to restrain wealthy merchants from engaging in this trade. Captain Morgan and his extended family of potters participated in the illegal trade of skilled enslaved artisans.
This modern New Jersey family is to be commended for sharing what they discovered in the genealogical archives. The widowed Captain James Morgan, Jr. remarried the daughter of a powerful Judge VanWickle. As the trade of pottery- making ran in families, so did the trades of slavery and piracy. Captain James Morgan owned ships and plantations, so did his brother Charles in Louisiana who owned a plantation and a brigantine ship. The extended Morgan stoneware family owned the brig, Mary Ann, the sloop, Thorne and other merchant cargo ships. In 1818, Captain Morgans family was accused, charged by a Grand Jury and indicted for violating the 1811 law of kidnapping and transporting African-Americans.
They kidnapped and transported mostly mothers and children from their owners in New York and New Jersey to Louisiana. Captain James Morgans family branched in New Jersey and his brother Charles Morgans in Louisiana. The in-laws, Judge VanWickle and the wealthy merchants who owned the mansions and estates adjoining New Jerseys stoneware factories and clay pits were instrumental in the illegal activities, because they hid the kidnapped skilled artisans, their families and others in the basements of the mansions on their plantations.
Prior to the 1811 law being enacted, Captain Morgans extended family owned, transported, and kidnapped other owners skilled and unskilled enslaved artisans and their families, whom they sold locally and in other colonies later in other states. They were caught and tried in 1818, only because the laws had changed.
They were indicted for making multiple trips between 1818 and 1819, kidnapping and transporting African-Americans from New York and New Jersey, including one ocean trip to New Orleans on May 10th 1818. Among the 36 African-Americans stowed on board their brig ship Mary Ann were Claussie and child Hercules; Rachel and child Rosina; Flora and child Susan; Jeannette; Lydia Ann and child Harriet Jane; Hager and her children Mery and Charles; Christina and her children Diana and Darius; Phyllis and her children Elias and Robert; and Sarah and child Diana. Hopefully, there are readers doing genealogy for whom these names are significant. In America, art provenance and family history intersect dramatically.
The traders transported their human cargo overland by wagon, which took them to the dock to the ships at night. They were then transported to South Amboy, New Jersey, where the family resided and did business. Charles Morgan was a major purchaser of the people who were transported. Jonathan Morgan participated in the trade, as did James Edgar, Lewis Compton, David Bloomfield, Thomas Day, William Gordon Abrahams, Captain Lee and others.
As these stories come to light, we see the complexity of the root and lost stories in American folk art. The art is intertwined with the complexities of American colonial history. An example of David Morgans work is in the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum, Joshua Letts in the Barnes Foundation, and Xerxes Prices in the Brooklyn Museum. But only the work of the African-American potter, Thomas Commeraw, has been identified along with these artists so far.
I am grateful to the descendants of the family of John D. Disbrow for revealing this story based on records found in their genealogical search. I found the story when I researched the 18th-century merchant cargo ship and her artifacts discovered in 2010 in the foundations of New Yorks World Trade Center.
Pearl Duncan is completing a book about the World Trade Center ship, her sea adventures and owner, and the international dealings of Wall Street and New York City merchants of that Colonial American era.