Value of Slave Bills of Sale

Value of Slave Bills of Sale

You've got questions about discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history; our experts have the answers.

QMy family has a number of slave bills given to our great-great-uncle who lived in Athens, Ga. They’re faded pen-and-ink documents that state the date, sale price and a brief description of the person traded. How can I find out a value for these documents? If we sell them, who should we contact?

A. You’ll want to contact a professional appraiser with expertise in historical documents. He or she probably will need to see your papers before evaluating their worth. Try the American Society of Appraisers at or (800) 272-8258. A university history department, a history museum or a rare books librarian also might be able to help you or recommend someone who can.

Before you sell these documents, though—and even if you keep them—I encourage you to provide transcriptions and/or copies to your local historical society or genealogical library. Slave ancestors are difficult to trace, and the information you have could provide a modern family historian with an important key to his or her past. (And though Family Tree Magazine editors aren’t experts on antique documents, often, if you can give your papers provenance or link them to a prominent historical figure through genealogical research, you can increase their value. An appraiser could tell you more about this.)

In the meantime, slow fading and deterioration of your documents by storing them in acid-free, lignin-free folders and boxes, available at archival-supply retailers (such as Light Impressions and Archival Methods) and some craft stores. Handle the papers as little possible, and when you must touch them, wear cotton gloves to protect them from the oils on your hands. Keep them away from light, in an area where temperatures and humidity levels don’t fluctuate. No basements or attics—an interior closet is a good option.

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