Ebony-Jet Archive Sells For $30M At Auction, Will Be Given To Smithsonian

Written by Ann Brown
By Autumn Keiko

A decision has finally been made about the achieves of Ebony and Jet magazines and the trove of historical and valuable photos. 

“A consortium of foundations—the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, and the MacArthur Foundation—has bought the historic archives of Johnson Publishing, the Chicago-based company behind Ebony and Jet magazines, for $30 million. Containing more than four million images and 10,000 hours of video and audio recordings, the archive is considered an irreplaceable record of 20th-century African American life and culture,” Art-Net reported.

The foundations plan to donate the collection to the National Museum of African American History of Culture in Washington, DC; the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles; as well as other cultural institutions.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the archive was being sold as part of the company’s bankruptcy proceeding.

“We’re thrilled with the outcome,” Ford Foundation president Darren Walker said in a statement. “This archive is a national treasure and one of tremendous importance to the telling of black history in America. We felt it was imperative to preserve these images, to give them the exposure they deserve and make them readily available to the public.”

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 34: Rashad Moore Jamarlin talks to Score 3 Angels founder and investor Rashad Moore about his transition from engineer and employee to boss of his own software consulting company, which he sold to a subcontractor for a U.S. intelligence agency.

Most feel this is a sad ending to Johnson Publishing, which was founded in 1942 by John H. Johnson and went on to become the country’s largest African American-owned publishing firm. It debuted Ebony magazine in 1945 and Jet in 1951. Since Johnson’s death in 2005, the company has struggled. It first tried to sell its valuable archives in 2015, during which time, they were appraised at $46 million. TIn 2016, the company sold off Ebony and Jet, and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation.

“The archives contain historic images chronicling African American history from the 1940s to the early 2000s, including the open casket photo of lynched teenager Emmett Till in 1955 and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife and daughter at his funeral. Pioneering figures such as baseball stars Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson, musicians Sammy Davis Jr. and Aretha Franklin, Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, poet Langston Hughes, and comedian Whoopi Goldberg are among those featured in the files,” Art-Net reported.

Hilco Streambank auctioned off the achieves with a $12.5 million minimum bid. 

“The interest level and active participation in the sale process for the photography and media archive has been truly remarkable,” said Miriam Stein, the Chapter 7 trustee for Johnson Publishing, in a statement

Prior to the auction “Star Wars” filmmaker George Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson, tried to acquire the archive. “The photographs and documents had been collateral for a $12 million loan their San Francisco company, Capital Holdings V, made to the struggling publisher in 2015,” Art-Net reported.

There were other important items on auction besides the photo and video achieves. “Following the sale, nonprofit preservation group Landmark Illinois saved the office’s historic test kitchen, purchasing it for just $1 and the promise it would be promptly removed from the building, which is now being turned into apartments. In May, Brooklyn’s Museum of Food and Drink announced that it had been put in charge of the public display of the kitchen,” Art-Net reported.