"In Search of J.C. Coovert"
An illustrated lecture on the life and work of J.C. Coovert by Jane Adams and D. Gorton

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Notes for collectors of Coovert's work

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    Cotton harvest, Wilson Plantation, Arkansas. No. 1524. Copyright Coovert, Memphis 1928. Collection of the Coovert family.
    Notes for Collectors
    There has been some interest in collecting the work of J. C. Coovert. Most recently eBay has conducted auctions on postcards attributed to Coovert as well as an album of a Spanish American War encampment in Mississippi in 1898. Additionally, we have heard of strong interest in Memphis, the home of the Coovert family and where he made the vast majority of his pictures.

    There are several guides to keep in mind if one chooses to collect Coovert's photographs or other materials.

    1. The authenticity of the photographs is not always apparent. Many of the prints that we have seen are copies of copies. Moreover, we have rarely seen any images that were signed as opposed to stamped or engraved on the negative. There's nothing unusual about this since Coovert, like most of the photographers of his time, had modest notions as to the value of his pictures.

    2. Much of the current interest in Coovert has to do with his views of African Americans. One of the few auctions with his work included him in with a number of other photographers as producing ethnic "views". If a photographer is noted by subject matter rather than name, there is usually little value in in collecting.

    3. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, which holds a Sunny Side Album, made a decision to list Coovert's name separately in their card catalogs. That is not true at a number of institutions where they place his photographs in generic "subject" categories such as "floods". Until there is a decision to separate his work, as well as other photographers, into cross referenced categories it will be difficult to ascertain the quality and scope of photographer's life work. I personally find the situation in libraries and archives as akin to placing Sinclair Lewis's work into "Beef" because he wrote about stockyards.

    4. Coovert thought that families should still have photo albums, a form of assembling photographs that he greatly favored. We have found a few albums, including Sunny Side Plantation, the Spanish American War, the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department, and the Lee Wilson Plantation, Wilson, Ark., as well as several family albums. We believe that there were other albums like these that are waiting to be discovered. In particular, we think there are more plantation albums from the Mississippi Delta depicting cotton and its harvest.

    Coovert looking through a family album. From the Coovert family collection.

    5. There are several private collections that are held by people who are Coovert's descendents or who love his work and the history of the region that he evokes. In the event, none of them appear to be interested in selling their holdings. Instead they have indicated to me that they are looking for a repository in a library or museum that will safeguard Coovert's legacy.

    6. Which brings me to scarcity. A well known dealer in photographic art said that "there's not a lot of it around", meaning authentic images from Coovert. I agree. The material has been scattered to the four winds. Take, for instance the picture on the top of this page of Wilson Plantation in 1931. It is the only picture of Coovert's that I have seen that still has the highly fugitive colors placed on it during retouching. Owned by a member of Coovert's family, it has remained largely unhandled and out of light for 80 years. In my mind it is one of the most valuable images I have run across. It is very rare.

    Until a real market develops in the auctions or through private collectors, the value of Coovert's work will be hard to gauge. But it is surely worth more now with the interest that has been building in the last few years than during its years of obscurity.

    D. Gorton