Q: I am wondering if you can help me find out something about a small table my great aunt purchased in London in the 1920s or ’30s. It a calling card table meant to set in the foyer or front hall of the house and is thought to be from the mid-1800s. It is 31 1/4 inches tall and carved from some kind of wood.
I cannot find anything about the piece and I do not display it in my home because I think it is racially insensitive. Can you give me some history and an idea of the value?
A: I understand about the “racially insensitive” part, and you are far from being alone in that regard. This figure is called a “blackamoor” (or black-a-Moor). Just a few years ago, the Italian fashion house of Dolce and Gabbana found itself in something of a firestorm when it had models march down a runway wearing earrings in the form of exotic black women.
Dolce and Gabbana defended itself by saying Italian art has a long history of the blackamoor that dates to medieval times when Arab/Berber armies invaded Sicily. The point was Italian depictions of Africans predate slavery and modern caricatures of such figures as “Mammy” and “Aunt Jemima.”
Simplistically, in Italian art, blackamoors went from threatening enemies in Sicily, to the embodiment of Christian sainthood, to the exotic servants of wealthy men and women. As a general rule, the blackamoor figures found on the current market are presented as servant figures bearing light by holding a candle, candelabra or torch, or the figure may be holding up a tabletop or carrying a basket of fruit.
Blackamoors may also support a centerpiece, salt cellar, vase for flowers, mirror, box and yes, a tray for calling cards. These blackamoor figures originated in the 17th century and are often associated with Venice. Venetian artist Andrea Brustolon (1662-1732) may be the most famous sculptor of these images.
The example in today’s question depicts a blackamoor acrobat doing a handstand and holding a card tray balanced on top of his feet. I found a blackamoor almost identical to P.N.’s that sold at an auction house in Thomaston, Maine, in 2014. The difference: it was wearing one gold-colored earring (or possibly two, I could not see the other side).
The piece that sold was described as being 19th century and being made from ebonized mahogany. Despite its undeniable racial insensitivity, it sold at the auction for $4,500.
Write to Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Include a high-resolution, in-focus photo of the subject