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Spurred by big deal, civil rights era documents now up for grabs

When Barry Tulloss heard an interview between Martin Luther
King Jr. and his father, former radioman Jerry Tucker, he said the hair stood
up on his neck.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Tulloss
said. “He didn’t see it for anything significant, but I saw it as
priceless, a lost part of history.”

The interview sat in a shoe box in a closet for 40 years,
until Tulloss began quietly shopping for prospective buyers six years ago. Then
he saw Atlanta auction house owner
Paul Brown on CNN.

“They’ll be able to do something with it,” Tulloss
said of the interview, now one of a few items from the era up for sale next
month in Brown’s Atlanta gallery.

Brown gained national attention in April when an anonymous
woman attempted to sell a small collection of documents said to belong to King
through an auction at Gallery 63. Although the King family ultimately halted
the sale, the episode suddenly thrust Brown into the civil rights business.

Suddenly, people came forward with items from their attics,
closets and basements, hoping each relic might fetch a small fortune. Eager buyers
started contacting him, too, with plans to invest in civil rights-era

And Brown knew he was onto something.

“I’ve stumbled upon a market I really didn’t realize
existed,” said Brown, an antiques dealer who specializes in estate sales. “When
you can get your hands on a piece of history, that touches you. This stuff is
out there and people want it.”

After the Martin Luther King Jr. collection was purchased
for $32 million last year from auction house Sotheby’s, those who had been
saving similar items from the civil rights era saw the potential for profit.
And many items that may have gone directly to a university, library, museum or
other institution are now up for grabs on the open market.

That has put more pressure on nonprofit groups chasing those
documents. They must now work more aggressively to reach donors before they die
or choose to sell them on the open market, said Doug Shipman, executive
director of Atlanta’s proposed Center for Civil and Human Rights.

And many of those items will inevitably wind up at Gallery
63 a north Atlanta warehouse which sells everything from antique paintings and
furniture to baseball cards and vintage jewelry.

The gallery became a clearinghouse of sorts for civil rights
documents in April, when an anonymous woman claiming to be a childhood friend
of King’s approached Brown to sell her collection of about 25 “previously
unknown” letters, notes and speeches dating from the early mid-1960s and
held in a green file folder for 40 years.

As word of the auction spread, thousands visited his
company’s Web site and dozens of interested investors called. But three days
before the sale, the auction was halted by the King estate, which cited
intellectual property rights.

Collectors don’t seem put off by the failed sale. Brown said
he’s received about 100 inquiries from sellers and buyers. He is planning
another auction starting on Aug. 4, with items including reels of interviews
with King and an invitation to King’s 1965 Nobel Peace Prize dinner in Atlanta.
He has also brokered four private sales of similar items two of which were
valued at more than $100,000.

King family representative Isaac Newton Farris Jr., King’s
nephew, said he will not oppose the sale of the invitation and letter since
both were gifts but could challenge the sale of the interview. Farris said it’s
hard to keep an eye on private sales of items that may not be legitimate or
that may conflict with intellectual property rights.

“You can only deal with what you know. When we are
alerted to it through the media, concerned citizens or others, we try to take
action,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody’s figured out how to have
a fail-proof way of monitoring this type of thing.”

Collector Robert White of Bluffton,
S.C., founder of The Robb Report magazine,
said prices for the documents have “skyrocketed” recently.

“I’m always seemingly an underbidder,” said White,
who plans to bid at the August auction on behalf of several prospective buyers.

White has about 15 or 20 pieces from the era that he collected
during his years as a student at Ole Miss. When he has had an item for long
enough, he usually sells it or trades it for something else he wants.

“You’re either a philanthropist or you’re buying to
collect,” White said. “I’m a collector.”

For others, Brown said, the thrill is in the chase, and
sales to private owners don’t always mean such documents are lost to the

“Somebody can purchase it and then donate it and
everybody wins,” Brown said.

Andrew Young, who worked alongside King at the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, has urged his friends in the civil rights
movement to bypass the private sector and donate their documents.

For his part, he said he gave his papers to the Auburn
Avenue Research Library and The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent
Social Change even before he knew their potential value.

“We’ve got a priceless heritage hidden away in trunks
and suitcases and boxes,” Young said. “I would just like to see them
all come together. Then we will be able to understand what a great period in
American history this has been.”

The national interest in the civil rights movement is not
expected to wane any time soon. Museums dedicated to civil rights are in
Memphis, Birmingham and Greensboro, N.C., and plans are under way for a King
memorial on the National Mall and a new Smithsonian Institute museum dedicated
to black history and culture.

If the past three months are any indication, there are
plenty of people yet to come forward, Brown said.

“There’s an amazing amount of historical pieces out
there,” he said. “The treasure hunt is still on.”

On the Net:

Gallery 63:

– Associated Press

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