50-Year Search Results in Massive Discovery of Cuban History
Since 1973, from the tender age of 11, Wayne James has been on a mission: to find a complete set of the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., cigar company’s 1925 “Cuba Series” photographs. The half-a-century search is finally over: James has unearthed—and acquired—not one, but four, sets of the exceedingly rare photos, all on the Iberian Peninsula. The find is the collectors’ equivalent of discovering a trove of beautifully preserved, 100-year-old baseball cards. The photos are captioned and depict the farms, factories, bridges, statuary, political leaders, schools, churches, mansions, casinos, country clubs, parks, etc., of Cuba’s six provinces.
In August of 2022, James had a great breakthrough when he learned, for the first time, that the complete 1925 “Cuba Series” contains 1,670 images. Since then, he also discovered that a Spanish antiquarian sold an incomplete set containing 1,321 of the 1,670 images in 2017, and that the National Library of Cuba has a set in its holding, but it is unclear whether it is a complete set. In the United States, the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection, the largest repository of Cuban documents outside Cuba, contains a set donated by one Paul Salgueiro, but that set has less than half of the 1,670 images.
So, on Monday, December 5, 2022, when a random Google search led James to a Cadiz, Spain, antiquarian who was selling a complete set of the 1925 “Cuba Series” photographs, James was understandably exhilarated.
“I have been searching high and low for these photos since I first inherited about 100 of them from my maternal great-uncle [Cornelius] Alphonso Messer (1896-1973) upon his death,” James said. “And over the years, I have found caches here and there, almost always in Europe. Between 2004, when I found 250 of the precious photos in Barcelona, Spain, and May of 2022, when I purchased 350 at auction, I had amassed a collection totaling more than 800 image.”
Wayne James’ fortuitous connection to the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., “Cuba Series” photographs began more than a century ago. In 1918, James’ maternal great-uncle Alexander Messer, born on St. Croix in 1888 to Christian Messer (1859-1927) and Andrina Prince Messer (1865-1941), migrated to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, as a laborer in the great Caribbean island’s thriving sugarcane industry and to play music. Beginning in the mid-1920s, to share pictorial images of his adopted Cuban homeland with his family on St. Croix, Alexander would occasionally enclose the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., “Cuba Series” photos in his letters to his parents and siblings. Alexander’s younger brother Alphonso safeguarded the photos at the family’s ancestral home in Frederiksted, St. Croix, for almost 50 years before the nascent collection of approximately 100 images passed to Wayne James.
On March 27, 2022, inspired by his dear, dear Cuban friend Luis C. Garcia-Menocal, great-grandson of Cuba’s third president, Mario Garcia-Menocal, James premiered Going…Going…Gone: The Grandeur of Golden-Age Cuba, a 3-part docufilm produced by Kiwaun Cumberbath and done in the emerging “quiltography” genre, featuring approximately 500 of the “Cuba Series” images within the context of Post-Revolution Cuban history and voluptuously supported by score after score of music by Cuba’s greatest 19th-century composers. The film has been met with critical acclaim, receiving a glowing review on the front page of Havana Times, for example, and is available free of charge on Youtube.
Originally issued as sequentially numbered album collectibles for the preferred customers of the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., cigar company, very few of the photo-cards have survived the ravages of time. Occasionally, one or two are offered for sale on the internet for prices ranging from 5-25 Euros a piece, but rarely are clusters of the photos offered for sale. But after 50 years of painstaking collecting, James has emerged as the world’s foremost collector of the “Cuba Series” photographs. In 2009, while serving as Senator of the United States Virgin Islands, he donated a copy of 250 of the images to the library of the University of Havana, which, prior to the gift, had had no archival knowledge of the photos. And now that he has amassed four originally bound sets of the photos, James will donate them to various academic institutions in 2025 to mark the 100th anniversary of the issuance of the photographs: the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection; the libraries of James’ Almae Matres, Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and Georgetown University in Washington, DC; and New York’s The Schomburg Center. A digital file will be made available online for all the world to have access to the collection. And plans are underway to select 400 of the most stunning and important images for publication in a large-scale coffee table book.
“Finding these rare photographs has been a labor of love,” James said. “My intention was always to find them in order to preserve them, then to share them. Thus, the bountiful Universe has blessed me with the good fortune to rescue them from the clutches of obscurity so that the whole world can see, in perpetuity, the greatness that once was Cuba,” James concluded.
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This is awesome. You continue to do great and rewarding things. – Carol M. Burke