Dear Helaine and Joe: 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 is thought to be from the mid-1800s and a calling card table meant to set in the foyer or front hall of the house. It is 31 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? Thank you. — P. N.
Dear P. N.: 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) and just a few years ago, the famous Italian fashion house of Dolce and Gabbana found themselves in something of a firestorm when they had models march down a runway wearing earrings in the form of exotic black women.
Dolce and Gabbana defended themselves by saying there was a long history of the blackamoor in Italian art that dates back to medieval times when Arab/Berber armies invaded Sicily. Their 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 can also be represented supporting 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, and Venetian artist Andrea Brustolon (1662-1732) is credited by some with being the most famous sculptor of these images.
These figures are often depicted in poses a real human being could not possibly hold for any length of time. The example in today’s question depicts a blackamoor acrobat doing a handstand and holding a card tray balanced on top of his feet.
P. N. may believe her blackamoor is unique, but it is not. I found an almost identical example that sold at an auction house in Thomaston, Maine, in 2014. It was exactly the same as the example in today’s question except it was wearing one gold-colored earring (or possibly two, I could not see the other side).
The piece that sold was the same size as P. N.’s and decorated in the same manner. It was described as being 19th century and being made from ebonized mahogany. Despite its undeniable racial insensitivity, it sold at that time (at auction) for $4,500.