Harriet Tubman

A newly discovered photo of Harriet Tubman, circa 1865-1868.

Swann Galleries

About a month after it acquired a recently discovered photo of Harriet Tubman at a New York City auction, the Smithsonian has released a statement outlining its plans for the artifact.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture joined with the Library of Congress to pay a total of $161,000 for the album containing the photo, which was once the property of Sherwood abolitionist Emily Howland. They acquired the album through Lion Heart Autographs, of Manhattan, which made the winning bid at the album's auction by Swann Galleries.

In a statement to The Citizen, Dr. Michèle Gates Moresi, supervisory museum curator of collections at the national museum, said it is taking several weeks to prioritize the care and conservation of the album. Then, it will begin digitizing the album to make sure every one of its photographs is available to the public "as soon as possible."

That also means reproductions of the Tubman photo will be available for display by the Harriet Tubman Home, Gates Moresi said. The Auburn museum raised more than $27,000 through an online campaign, #BringHarrietHome, in anticipation that the album would command between $20,000 and $30,000 at the March 30 auction.

Asked whether the Smithsonian and Library of Congress could possibly loan the actual photo to the Tubman home for display, Gates Moresi said any such request would be reviewed.

"We look forward to collaborating with the Auburn home to educate the public on the life and achievements of Harriet Tubman," she said.

Harriet Tubman Home President/CEO Karen Hill said Thursday she was "profoundly disappointed" the national museum didn't reach out to the Tubman home as an additional partner in the photo's acquisition. The Auburn museum has gifted a brick from its historic grounds to the museum, so the two institutions share "a good relationship," Hill said. 

Looking back on the auction, Hill believes the Tubman home's fundraising campaign increased interest in the photo, making "untold numbers of people more aware of who Harriet Tubman was, her contributions and the importance of the photograph." Though the Auburn museum was outbid, Hill is relieved the photo didn't fall into the hands of a private collector.

"The Harriet Tubman Home is gratified there's a profound respect for iconic African American artifacts in the commerce and art market," she said. "The bid price truly reflects that."

Hill finds other silver linings in the campaign: Many of the hundreds of donors to #BringHarrietHome have left their money with the Tubman home, Hill said, allowing it to update its tour of the Auburn site and future national historical park. She expressed gratitude to them and a few local business owners who "had our back" in the auction.

Hill added that the Tubman home isn't just eager to work with the Smithsonian and Library of Congress on the Tubman photo, but the 43 other images in the album it acquired. According to writing on the back of the photo, it was taken at "Powelson Photography, 77 Genesee St., Auburn" — and more could have been as well, Hill said.

"We definitely want to be a part of the work that now needs to be done," she said. "To determine their link to Emily Howland and their link to Auburn. It's an exciting piece of work to be done, and we look forward to being right in the center of that work."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen.