Malcolm X Archival Material Rescued From the Auction Block
Schomburg Center could be recipient of collection, Shabazz family says
Scholars around the nation are breathing sighs of relief now that a treasure trove of original speech manuscripts, diaries, photos and letters belonging to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz — more commonly known as Malcolm X — have been rescued from the auction block.
The threatened auction of the materials came to a halt with a March 12 filing in Los Angeles Superior Court. And surprisingly, the complaint — seeking “declaratory” and “injunctive relief” — came from one of the players painted as a “bad guy” in the case: Public Storage Inc. (PSI), the California-based owner of the Florida storage facility that originally sold the papers and memorabilia in September 2001.
Butterfield’s, the San Francisco-based auction house also criticized for its role in the controversy, quickly withdrew the items from its March 20 auction. A spokesman said the company strongly felt it was the right thing to do.
“Basically, we received some communications from the storage facility as well as from the (Shabazz) family’s attorney which brought to light irregularities in the process of the transfer of title prior to our consigner’s buying the materials. So when we learned that there were a number of questions or issues still to be resolved, we decided it was best to hold on to the property and wait until those questions are answered,” says Levi Morgan, director of communications for the company, which is owned by eBay.
The PSI court filing confirmed several details of the case that have puzzled observers. For example, the complaint noted Malikah Shabazz Brown, one of the six daughters of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, was at the center of the case. She reportedly rented the Florida storage locker in May 1999 and defaulted on her rental payments in July 2001. The complaint also names the buyer at the ensuing storage auction. He was James Calhoun, whom observers in the rare books and manuscripts trade have described as a “picker,” one who buys items “blind” at storage auctions for possible resale.
As for the “irregularities” that halted the auction, they appear to have been quite serious. When items are offered for sale at a storage auction, the process normally expunges the original title and conveys it to the buyer. But there can be extenuating circumstances, notes attorney Joseph Fleming, who represents both the estate of Betty Shabazz and her daughters.
“The material was taken without the knowledge or the consent of the rightful owners — those being the estate of Betty Shabazz and the daughters of Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X,” says Fleming. “(Malikah) did not have nor did she seek the consent of either her sisters or the estate to remove the materials.”
The Shabazz family is basing its case for the return of the documents on that defect in the chain of title, Fleming explains. Their case is strengthened, he adds, by a defect in the process by which Brown was notified that the contents of her storage locker were about to be offered for sale.
Florida law mandates renters be given 15 days to settle their accounts and retrieve their property, but in this case only 13 days were allotted. “The date of first notice of the sale was the 7th of Sept; the sale was held Sept. 20th. That’s just two days. But two very critical days. The law is very clear with regard to rights of property. It gives everyone the opportunity to get their property back,” Fleming says.
While Morgan says Butterfield’s is awaiting word from the courts on how it should proceed, Fleming says he strongly doubts the case will ever come to trial. “Our aim is to privately negotiate the return of the papers to the family,” he says.
And if and when that happens, the materials will go to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Fleming says — a development that no doubt will disappoint the throngs of institutions that were rumored to be lining up to purchase the materials at auction.
What should not be forgotten as the case fades from public view, however, is how close an irreplaceable portion of Malcolm X’s legacy came to being lost forever.
“We have to remember that this stuff was saved by a guy who was looking for furniture and ended up with these banker’s boxes full of paper,” says Catherine Williamson, director of fine books, manuscripts and entertainment memorabilia for Butterfield’s. “But if there hadn’t been a buyer, the boxes would have been tossed. If the buyer hadn’t looked at the papers, hadn’t understood the significance of the papers, they would have been tossed.
“The threat to these materials was so real,” Williamson says. “It’s terrifying to think of what the world came so close to losing.”
As for the mysterious role of Malikah Brown in the case, that may never be fully understood.
“The family, for reasons you might imagine, is not interested in commenting,” Fleming says. They’ve made one statement in which they’ve acknowledged Brown’s role. “As for the rest of it, it’s a private family matter and they’re dealing with it as such.”
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