A Guide to Collecting Old Photographs—Plus, How to Tell If Yours Are Worth Something
Gathering snapshots of daily life, family scenes, and historical moments allow for an intimate view into past lives.
The faces stare back at you: solemn children, a rough-hewn farmer, carefully dressed matrons peering across the gulf of time. That gulf between you and those images be as wide as 150 years if you are looking at one of the first daguerreotypes, calotypes, ambrotypes, or tintypes, the earliest forms of the photograph, but the images are nonetheless captivating. Great 20th-century photographs are typically collected for their signature and their composition, but these early, often anonymous, images combine pleasing composition with historical documentation, pioneering photographic techniques, and a curious emotional power.
"There is a certain intimacy about these images," says Therese Mulligan, curator of photography at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. "They are resplendent with detail. They allow us to see our own history." An old image is not automatically a valuable image. The majority of photographs taken before 1900 are ordinary studio portraits—millions of them were made in the nineteenth century. They are, for the most part, still moderately priced, still waiting in dusty attic trunks and on flea market tables, made valuable only as collectors begin to pursue them.
The History of Photographs
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a Parisian artist and showman known for his elaborate dioramas, had been experimenting with the camera obscura for a number of years when, in 1833, he stumbled on the process that would make him famous. A thermometer happened to break and, to Daguerre's delight, the leaking mercury vapor produced an image on a nearby photographic plate. Soon the entrepreneur perfected the daguerreotype and sold his process to the French government in 1839; they then presented it to the world, no patent required. One month later, daguerreotype studios were opening in New York City and in the capitals of Europe.
Around the same time, William Henry Fox Talbot, an English scientist, created a positive image on paper from a negative print. He quickly patented the process for his calotype (the forerunner of today's method), but it didn't catch on: Daguerreotypes were much clearer and required no license to operate. Americans flocked to pose at daguerreotype studios, and braved considerable discomfort. Although the exposure time came down from ten minutes in 1840 to ten seconds by late 1841, it was still necessary for the subject's head to be restrained by a brace. Desperate operators hoping to distract difficult sitters recited poetry timed exactly to the length of the exposure.
The daguerreotype was followed in 1854 by the ambrotype (after the Greek word for immortal, ambrotos), a negative image on a glass plate, visible when backed with black paper or paint. Another early use of the glass negative was the cyanotype (after the Greek word for blue). In the years before color photography, the resulting blue image was quite a novelty. The tintype made its appearance in 1856—a cheaper, less fragile image on tin. Thousands of young men on their way to Civil War battlefields stopped to have a 25-cent tintype taken. The soldiers had other photographic choices as well: The collodion wet-plate process allowed photographers to produce inexpensive copies from a single negative. Soon visitors were leaving calling cards with small photographs on them, also known as cartes de visite.
Images of heads of state (Abraham Lincoln and the British royal family, in particular), outlaws like Jesse James, and carnival stars like Tom Thumb were sold by mail and on Main Streets across America. Images of far-off lands were packaged in albums. During long winters, family members took turns viewing three-dimensional images of Egypt's pyramids and the American West's Grand Canyon through a stereoscope. But by 1900, all of these early imaging techniques were losing ground, unable to compete in a world in which people could take their own photos with the new Kodak camera or, for ten cents a ticket, watch a silent motion picture.
Collecting by Era and Interest
These old photographs continue to fascinate because they open a window onto our history. What is seen is not always what is expected. "I look for images that challenge our perceptions of what that period was like," says Greg French, a collector in Boston. Over 16 years, French has amassed a collection of several thousand early photographs with an emphasis on daguerreotypes. Many are outdoor New England scenes and portraits of unusual characters and "occupationals" (men depicted with the tools of their trade).
Because the selection of early photographs is so broad, collectors narrow the field by focusing on personal interests. "There are very few generalist collectors," says Charles Schwartz, a dealer in New York City. "Civil War guys collect only that material, 'dag' collectors won't look at ambrotypes. As for subject matter, people are looking for everything you can think of—postmortems (photographs taken after death), people wearing glasses, men smoking cigars, bicycles." Stephen Cohen, another New York City dealer, agrees. "It can get pretty specific," he says. "If a little girl is holding a doll but you can't see the doll's face, some collectors won't want that photograph."
Other collectors concentrate on an image's aesthetic power. "Many early photographers were great artists," says Bill Becker, a collector in Michigan. Becker, who often finds material in antiques shops, recommends perusing inventories of dealers of 20th-century photography, where early images might be undervalued. Daguerreotypes tend to command the highest prices, particularly the earliest ones, identified by their simple brass mats and plain leather cases. In New York City, Sotheby's has sold early daguerreotypes of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. and of the abolitionist-statesman Frederick Douglass for six figures, but New Hampshire dealer Dennis Waters notes that exceptional daguerreotypes can be had for under $500.
"Most of my collectors don't care who the photographer was," says David Chow, a dealer in Providence, Rhode Island. "A daguerreotype portrait of a pretty lady by an unknown provincial photographer might be $100," French explains. "But well-established names make a difference. A daguerreotype by Southworth and Hawes will be more like $400." Waters agrees: "Works by the top tier of identified daguerreotypists command a premium—most sell for over $1,000." Names may be prominently displayed on the brass mat or the reverse side, but unsigned images can also offer clues to the author's identity—there may be recognizable props and signature lighting techniques.
Prices for later techniques tend to be lower, but the best examples are appreciating. "An occupational tintype I could have bought for $25 fifteen years ago could easily cost $75 today," says French. Western motifs are avidly sought, as are images of dogs, cats, occupationals, and sporting events. "Look for anything out of the ordinary," suggests Larry Collins, a private dealer in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Sometimes, a little research can reap big benefits. "A paper photograph of an unidentified Civil War soldier sells for about $25," says Chow. "But if he's identified and he died at Gettysburg, you are looking at $200, at least."
Collectibility by Condition
Condition is a major consideration. While tarnish on daguerreotypes is natural, collectors should avoid those with any part of the image rubbed off. Ambrotypes that are flaked or cracked should be avoided; tintypes should be mint—no bending, flaking, or scratches allowed. Collectors contemplating any kind of conservation of images should seek expert advice. "This is definitely a case of 'Don't try this at home,'" says Merry Foresta, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. "Especially with a daguerreotype, don't even open it. Just rubbing your finger over it could damage it irreparably. Call a local museum or an auction house for the name of a reputable conservator." Experts recommend that non-cased images be stored in acid-free plastic away from light—a drawer will do. Humidity can damage cased images, which should be kept in cool, dry environments.
Novices to the field should visit the collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Daguerreotype fans can contact the Daguerreian Society in Pittsburgh. "Start with what you like," suggests Therese Mulligan of the George Eastman Museum. "Study some of the books on this subject; learn a little about the history of photography. It's easy to get hooked."