Trove of African-American Artifacts Headed for Sale

African-American artifacts
Mr. Montague holds a recording of Booker T. Washington

A Las Vegas man’s extensive collection of African-American historical artifacts is headed for either sale or auction as part of a bankruptcy action.

The 8,000-plus-item collection built by Nathaniel Montague – known more widely as “Magnificent Montague,” the name he used during a storied broadcasting career – and his wife now is under control of a U.S. bankruptcy trustee, said Martha Kader, project manager for the Montague collection.

Attempts will be made to find a buyer who might be willing to keep the collection intact. If that’s not possible, the collection will be put up for auction as early as late summer or early fall, Kader said.

The Montague collection includes original and rare artifacts and pieces of memorabilia – including posters and photos, rare books, artworks, recordings, films, dolls, toys, even authentic slave contracts – dating back to the days of slavery. It has been called one of the largest private collections of African-American memorabilia in the world.

In a Las Vegas Review-Journal profile of Montague published in June 2011, Montague expressed hopes of finding a buyer who would keep the collection intact, rather than breaking it up into individual pieces. He also said he hoped that the Smithsonian Institution might be interested in buying the collection for its National Museum of African-American History, which is scheduled to open in 2015.

Montague assembled the collection over the course of a notable career as a disc jockey that took him to such varied locales as Texas, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. While Montague was working in Los Angeles, “burn, baby, burn,” a phrase he had coined as a means of firing up listeners for rhythm-and-blues classics, was adopted – albeit with an altered meaning – as a rallying cry during the 1965 Watts riots.

However, faced with debts – including, according to one court filing, a $325,000 legal judgment against the couple in New York – Montague and his wife filed for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy in August.

At this point, the Montagues’ collection has not been scheduled for auction, Kader said. Instead, “we are still trying to sell it intact” to satisfy creditors’ claims and other fees.

Finding a single buyer who might keep the collection intact is considered preferable to selling the collection at auction, because the latter option probably would result in the collection being broken up and its individual pieces sold to multiple buyers.

“That is the dream of the Montagues, to see the collection presented together and shown – to send it to a place where they can display the whole collection where people can enjoy it and learn from it,” Kader said. “They really want to share the collection with the world.”

But, either way, Kader said, “we’re looking for an amount in excess of $2 million.”

A report about the collection two weeks ago brought “a huge response,” Kader said, “most of it is not serious, but some of it is serious. We have had some seriously interested people, but we do not, at this point, have a bid in writing. We have interest, but nothing on the table.”

The collection catalog and other information about the collection can be seen after registering online (www.UnitedAMS.com/montaguecollection).

Technically, the collection has become an asset that will be either sold or auctioned to satisfy personal debt in a bankruptcy action. Still, people who have seen the collection firsthand have come away impressed with its scope and historical significance.

“With Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the No. 1 priority is to satisfy the creditors’ claims,” Kader said. “As much as we may have a sentimental attachment to the collection, the No. 1 priority is satisfying creditor’s claims.”

Yet, Kader said, breaking up the collection for sale at auction “would be a shame, particularly (if) most of it would end up in the hands of individual collectors and never see the light of day.

“This would be a wonderful thing to be at a university or a museum, or even (with) a private collector who would buy the whole collection and let it go on tour.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at  [email protected] or 702-383-0280.