Letters, Photos Once Owned by Legendary East St. Louis Dancer to be Auctioned Off

Thousands of items that belonged to late dancer and activist Katherine Dunham will be auctioned next week. Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers, based in St. Louis, will offer an auction titled “Divine Technique: Katherine Dunham Archive” in celebration of Black History Month. “I just felt that it should be something that should be highlighted, in the sense of information being given to a community,” Bryan Laughlin, executive director of the fine art and antiques auction firm, said on Friday. “And so while I value it much, much more than like our little estimate on it, I just wanted, essentially, that property to have a wherewithal in the arts community, because I felt like a lot of people were misunderstanding or kind of overlooking the significance of some of the paperwork backing to such a legendary individual that’s from our own region.”


Born in 1909 in Chicago, Katherine Dunham spent a significant portion of her career living in East St. Louis while vastly contributing to its arts community. The world-renowned dancer, activist and anthropologist was known for incorporating movements of the Black diaspora into her choreography.

In the 1960’s, Dunham came to East St. Louis where she founded the Performing Arts Training Center (now known as SIUE’s East St. Louis Center for the Performing Arts), the Katherine Dunham Museum and the Children’s Workshop. Dunham died in 2006

Estimated to be worth $5,000-$10,000, the auction honoring Dunham features items like her personal address book, financial records, and handwritten letters. It also includes a hard copy edition of The Minefield, Dunham’s unpublished memoir. Selkirk divided the archival material into 16 categories.

“There’s lots of photos of East St. Louis property that is no longer existing that Katherine was once associated with, there’s images, her property [Habitation] Leclerc in Haiti, and there are lots of letters between her and her assistant, Mrs. [Jeanelle] Stovall,” Laughlin said. “There’s lots of financial records, not just personal, but financial records from her husband, John Pratt, who was also figurehead in the theater world.”

Laughlin said the wealth of information that he learned about Dunham through the items she left behind was beautiful.

“I was just shocked when I did a lot more research on Katherine about, about what she was actually able to push through, and how much she was able to accomplish,” Laughlin said. “She didn’t have, you know, a ton of wealth to begin with. She didn’t have the age of the internet, where you can have all this ease of information and communication to travel through to another entity. And she was traveling the globe. She was doing her own thing. And she was expressing a new way of life through her own artistic expression. If that can’t be celebrated then, what are we doing?”

Laughlin said his firm received the material from a cosigner, whom Laughlin said wants to remain private, last fall. Since then, the firm has contacted several entities, including the Katherine Dunham Museum in East St. Louis, to bring more awareness to the items.

Lorenzo Savage, president of the museum’s board of directors, said he’s working on trying to get one of its supporters to bid.

Last year, Savage led a clean-up initiative of Dunham’s former homes so they can be used for historical preservation. The Katherine Dunham Museum is open by appointment only, and the board recently launched a virtual tour of the museum.

“I definitely want to get it, and it definitely should be in our archives in the first place,” Savage said. “A lot of that stuff was probably in those houses that we were cleaning up. I think that those items should be in the Katherine Dunham Museum. If someone wants to bid on it and donate it to us, that would be great.”

“Divine Technique: Katherine Dunham Archive” will be on Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. CST. People interested in the online bidding auction can get involved by calling or emailing Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers and registering online via its website or through platforms like Invaluable or LiveAuctioneers.

See Complete Article originally published Feb 19, 2022 in Belleville News-Democrat