Wayne James Purchases 350 Rare Cuba Photos from European Collector
St. Croix-born historian and art collector Wayne James has done it again: serendipitously acquired a cache of Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., “Cuba Series” photos. James’ collection of the “Cuba Series” photographs now totals more than 900 century-old images and is believed to be the world’s largest. The University of Miami’s esteemed Cuban Heritage Collection, widely regarded as one of the foremost repositories of Cuban documents outside Cuba, has only 60 of the images.
“A renowned Spanish auction house, aware of my interest in the ‘Cuba Series,’ contacted me to inform me of the Valencia, Spain, family’s willingness to part with its collection,” James said. “The Valencia collection is a great find. The most I had ever acquired in a single purchase was a Barcelona collection containing 250 images, back in 2005. On the rare occasions that these priceless photos are offered at auction, they are sold in lots of ones and twos. So, to find 350 is like finding a long-lost treasure on a deserted Caribbean island.”
The photos, issued by the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., cigar company of Havana, Cuba, to its special customers in 1925, were taken between 1890 and 1925 and depict “Golden-Age Cuba”—its breathtakingly beautiful bays, palatial residences and civic buildings, manicured parks, picturesque plantations, formidable fortresses and factories, sacred cathedrals and churches, etc.
Years of extensive scholarship has yielded very little on exactly how many photos comprise the “Cuba Series” and exactly to whom and how the photos were distributed.
“I have No. 1 of the series, and the largest number in my collection is No. 1669,” James said. “That leads me to believe that the complete series contains 1700 images. But no one seems to know for certain—not even the membership of the world’s great cartophilic societies. Maybe somewhere—in some cobwebbed attic, or in a dusty trunk, or in the secret compartment of a gentleman’s mahogany secretary—there is a complete set of the coveted ‘Cuba Series.’ But until that great discovery is realized, I acquire the photos whenever I can. And slowly, but surely, over the past 50 years, I have amassed a collection that is now the envy of the world.”
But James has not kept his collection from the world. In October of 2009, while visiting Cuba in his capacity of Senator of the United States Virgin Islands, he donated a copy of his collection—then totaling 250 images—to the University of Havana, which, prior to the gift, had no archival knowledge of the existence of the photos. And in March of 2022, James directed Going…Going…Gone: The Grandeur of Golden-Age Cuba, a 3-part docufilm done in the emerging “quiltography” genre, which showcases more than 500 of the images.
“I was inspired to direct a film sharing the photos with the people of the world by my dear, dear Cuban friend, Luis C. Garcia-Menocal, great-grandson of Mario Garcia-Menocal, Cuba’s third president [1913-1921]. In a conversation with Luis in June of 2019, I was moved by his love and nostalgia for his Cuban homeland, and I decided to honor him by sharing the beauty of bygone Cuba with people all over the world,” James said.
The film, which premiered on March 27, 2022, at the prestigious Musto Cultural Center in Union City, New Jersey, one of America’s foremost enclaves of Cuban-Americans, is available, free of charge, on YouTube. And on May 10, 2022, Cuba’s Havana Times published a glowing front-page feature story review of the film. And plans are underway to enter the film in the 2023 Cannes, Sundance, and Tribeca film festivals.
“Plans are also underway to publish a large-format, luxurious, coffee-table book featuring the most breathtakingly beautiful of the images,” James said. “And I am actively engaged with several universities and museums regarding serving as the official archive for the actual photos while digital archives are made electronically available to libraries around the world,” James added.
“I was a boy of 11 years when I inherited my family’s nascent collection of approximately 100 of the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., ‘Cuba Series’ photos,” James said. “These endearing photos were sent home—postcard-like—to St. Croix by my maternal great-uncles Alexander and Richard Messer, who both migrated to Cuba in the early years of the 1900s to work as laborers in the island-nation’s sugarcane industry and as musicians. The photos were lovingly and painstakingly safeguarded at the family’s ancestral home in Frederiksted, St. Croix, by their younger brother Alphonso Messer [1896-1973], who passed the photos on to me. And over the decades, I have added to this photographic legacy. And I am proud to have done my part in the preservation of my family’s history in Cuba and the history of great Cuba in general,” James concluded.