|By Eric C. Rodenberg
MIDDLETOWN, Va. — Antique collector-dealer Mark Brown self-effacingly calls it “dumb luck.” But, his sharp eye and astute familiarity with American history may have paid off handsomely.
The odds are becoming “slim to none” in pulling off a quality, inexpensive buy of authentic Civil War memorabilia at auction in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. For here, the competition is intense at auction. If there is a haven of Civil War aficionados, history buffs and antiquers, it has to be within this historic valley about an hour west of the nation’s capitol.
At auction in Clarke County – an area which congers up images of “Mosby’s Rangers” – Brown was among 200 other bidders rummaging through antiques, box lots and plain household goods.
“It was about two hours into the auction, and I decided to get up and take another ’walk around,’” Brown said. “I stumbled onto a box of a bunch of paper stuff, old newspapers … and I thought, this is just a bunch of reprints – these reprints were made by the thousands. I thought, ’Well there’s a bunch of Civil War freaks all over this place; this can’t be anything.’
“Then I got to looking closer. There were some papers in a thin cellophane-like paper. And on the front, was a story about Robert Edmund Lee. I thought, ’What the hell is this?’ It’s dated 1863, this isn’t a reprint.”
Brown put the papers back in order and boldly carried the box up to a table where bidders put things aside for the auctioneer to bring up for a quicker sale.
Then Brown took a seat, hoping no one else was “onto him.”
“I sat there for half an hour, 45 minutes, just going crazy,” Brown explained. “I’m thinking, ’I hope (the auctioneer) doesn’t look in there and start digging around’ … sure enough when it comes up for auction, he holds up a Kennedy-era paper. I open the bidding up at $10, and no one bids against me.”
At the end of the sale, Brown and his wife, June Lingwood-Brown, who both own the store, Why Not Antiques in nearby Middletown, Va., loaded up their merchandise from the sale.
Brown, while on the way home, cannot contain his excitement. He asks June to reach into the box, search out the transparent envelope and hand it to him.
What he finds are 17 original copies of the Southern Illustrated News, a weekly periodical printed between September 1862 and March 1865 in the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Va.
Robert ’Edmund’ Lee was the “tip off.”
“How they got Robert ’Edmund’ Lee on the front page of their newspaper is incredible,” Brown said. “This was not only the Confederate states’ newspaper, but this was their Commander in Chief, Robert E. Lee, and they got his name wrong.”
Of course, Brown knew that it was Robert Edward. “That’s what tipped me off,” he said. “I knew that wasn’t right … that’s what made me look closer.”
First published on Sept. 13, 1862, the Southern Illustrated News sought to fill a void left when citizens of the Confederacy lost access to Harper’s Weekly, the New York Illustrated News and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
In its “Salutatory,” in the first issue of the newspaper, the editors stated: “We propose to issue an Illustrated Family Newspaper … devoted to literature, to public instruction and amusement, to general news, and to the cause of our country in this trying hour when she is engaged in a terrible, but resolute and hopeful struggle for her liberty and independence.”
At its peak, the newspaper boasted as many subscribers as the largest daily paper in Richmond. However, as with all Southern publications, the News suffered from lack of paper and a shortage of authors, reporters, artists and engravers. Many of them had been drafted, or in the case of the better engravers, enlisted in the service of the Confederate administration to engrave paper money and stamps.
Not only did the publication manage to get its Commander in Chief’s name wrong, but the best they could come up with for a portrait of Lee was an adaptation of a Mexican War photograph, a likeness that was at least 10 years old. Seemingly, to bring it “up to date,” they festooned the portrait with the “Stars and Bars” flag of the Confederacy, and “pinned” three stars on Lee’s collar.
Although the editors at the News were somewhat free and loose with the paper’s content, few copies endured the turmoil in the South let alone surviving 150 years.
Only about 120 issues of the Southern Illustrated News were published during the war years.
Still, several historians and authors have gleaned exceptional fodder from the pages of the News on aspects of the Southern culture during the Civil War. Included among those are essays and observations on how the News formed and promoted a “Confederate identity” to the workings of the Southern press, how women and African Americans were portrayed, and the effusive support of Southern poetry and literature of the day.
But the bottom line for the antique dealer is how much are they worth?
“They’re pretty rare,” Brown said. “I’ve seen copies selling on Internet sites for $600 to $800. I was a bit surprised … I’m not sure if that was very realistic.”
So, in early November, Brown listed two on eBay, “just to see what the heck the market would bear.”
Starting both magazines out at $19.99, an 8-page Feb. 27, 1864 edition of the Southern Illustrated News brought $105.40 after 17 bids. The other paper (March 5, 1864) was bought by the same buyer for $91 after 19 bids.
“The economy has changed so much, it’s just become harder and harder to put value on anything,” said Brown, who has dealt antiques for 12 years. “What with the sesquicentennial now, anything with an authentic Civil War provenance will sell … it’s hard to make any money in this business, but you sure can have a blast doing this … if you look for it, and take your time, something is always bound to pop up.”
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