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By: Jean Dykstra
In preparation for this past spring’s photography sale, the specialists at Sotheby’s New York were researching a 4- by 5.25-inch daguerreotype, taken in 1848 or earlier, of a rural estate on what is now New York City’s Upper West Side. The image, remarkably detailed despite some tarnishing, shows a house at the top of a hill, with a white fence encircling the yard in front of it. Purchased at a small New England auction by an anonymous consignor, it provides a remarkably tangible view of the city’s bucolic past and is one of the earliest photographs of New York City. Estimated to sell for between $50,000 and $70,000, it brought a solid $62,500.
The evanescent, shimmering, almost magical quality of the daguerreotype, invented in 1839, made it the medium of choice in the United States well into the 1860s, when the reproducible paper photograph finally took over. “If you’re interested in early American photography,” says private dealer Charles Isaacs, “you’d better look at daguerreotypes. For the first 15 years of American photography, that’s what people did.” But if the idea of the daguerreotype brings to mind a musty historical artifact discovered in a New England attic, consider also that the cover of the February issue of the pop culture and fashion magazine W featured an image of Brad Pitt that Chuck Close took with a 19th-century daguerreotype camera. The picture, made with the contemporary daguerreotypist Jerry Spagnoli, brings Pitt into heightened focus, revealing every crease, wrinkle and hair follicle, not to mention his piercing baby blues.
Daguerreotypes tend to be a revelation to anyone who has looked at one of the 19th-century cased images in person. Part of the allure is the way daguerreotypes are often presented—in decorative, velvet-lined cases. These cases, reminiscent of engraved jewelry boxes, protect the surface of the daguerreotype from the light but also add to the impression that something precious and extraordinary lies inside. “You know you’ve got a great daguerreotype when you open the lid and you take in your breath. And that doesn’t happen very often,” says Wes Cowan, owner of Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati. The daguerreotype was created by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a Parisian diorama painter, who presented his invention to the French Academie des Sciences in January 1839. He received an annuity of 6,000 francs by selling his invention to the French government, but by 1855 or so, the reproducible paper photograph had rendered the daguerreotype nearly obsolete in France.
Its popularity lasted longer in America, a matter of taste that can be partly explained by the fact that William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the paper photograph, took out a patent on his invention that made it expensive to produce. Grant Romer, a curator, conservator and director of the Advanced Residency Program at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.,—which has a collection of some 3,500 daguerreotypes, including 1,200 by the team of Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes—has observed that at the daguerreotype’s peak in 1853, between 4 million and 7 million of them were produced. In the last decade a handful of contemporary artists have revived the process, which is complex and potentially hazardous. The image rests on a highly polished silver-plated sheet of copper that has been sensitized with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes and fixed with salt water. The result is a unique, incredibly detailed, almost ethereally lifelike image. As Hawes put it some 150 years ago, “No other process can render the human face with such fidelity and beauty.”
From their studio in Boston, Southworth and Hawes made portraits that included members of the country’s ruling class: Daniel Webster, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example. In a market in which the maker is often anonymous, their work is highly sought after. A full-plate Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype of two women posed with a chair sold for $387,500 at Sotheby’s New York in April 1999 in the sale of the collection of David Feigenbaum, setting a record at the time for a daguerreotype at auction. Feigenbaum collected many things: World War II paraphernalia, model boats, books, guns and, remarkably, 200 daguerreotypes made by Southworth and Hawes, more than 70 of them rare whole-plate daguerreotypes measuring 6.5 by 8.5 inches, all of which were discovered after his death in 1998. “That was the absolute red-hot peak of the daguerreotype market,” says Denise Bethel, director of photography at Sotheby’s New York, “not only in terms of prices but in terms of the quality of material coming to the market for American daguerreotypes.”
But daguerreotypes can also sell for $5 or $10 on eBay and at flea markets. It all depends on what you’re looking for. Daguerreotypes were not, in their heyday, exclusive to those with money. Millions of portraits were made, many by itinerant daguerreotypists, and the vast majority of them are the equivalent of today’s snapshots: cherished likenesses of loved ones but not fine art. Many collectors of daguerreotypes, however, acquire by subject, building their collections around portraits of children, occupationals (images of people by profession), pictures of buildings, images having to do with the railroad, post-mortem daguerreotypes, work made by black daguerreotypists, or stereo-daguerreotypes. One of the largest collections of stereo-daguerreotypes by the British daguerreotypist T. R. Williams is owned by Brian May, the guitarist for the rock group Queen, who is publishing a book about Williams’ work. According to Cowan, though, “Most sophisticated collectors are buying for the beauty of the image, regardless of the subject matter.”
Daguerreotypes are a specialist market; only a handful of dealers work with them on an ongoing basis, including Isaacs, William Schaeffer and Charles Schwartz. The Daguerreian Society, the main collecting group in the world of daguerreotypes, holds an annual meeting where they are sold, and they come up at auction at such firms as Sotheby’s (if the value is high enough) or Swann Galleries, both in New York, and at Cowan’s. In 2004 a panoramic daguerreotype of the San Francisco Harbor sold at Cowan’s for $40,250, and a whole-plate daguerreotype of San Francisco by Robert Vance sold there for $143,750. They are also to be found at tabletop fairs around the country and on sites like eBay, where a sixth-plate daguerreotype of a man in a “Quaker-type hat” was on offer recently for $20.50. The price range is vast, and there are many considerations that affect it. “For some people it’s the practitioner, for some it’s the size,” says Schaeffer. “Many people approach daguerreotypes purely from the subject matter. For me, it’s aesthetics. But the condition is key.” There might be scratches or irreversible green spots, where the silver has deteriorated and the copper is corroding, and tarnishing is common, but Schwartz advises collectors to leave it: “To me tarnish is like patina on furniture; it lets you know it hasn’t been messed with.”
The market for the medium began around 1970, when the heirs of Sidney Strober sold his collection of antique photographica at Sotheby’s (then Parke-Bernet). Among the works on the block was a whole-plate daguerreotype (circa 1854) of a San Francisco building that sold for $560 (Strober had bought it for $3.50). Today, says Schaeffer, a daguerreotype like that would bring $15,000. But the market exploded between 1985 and 2005, and it was driven primarily by one buyer, Keith Davis, who was collecting daguerreotypes for the Hallmark Collection, now part of the photography collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., where Davis is now curator of photography. “It became clear to me that daguerreotypes were undervalued and were far more significant than most institutions, or most collectors, had realized,” he says. “The market was, in a sense, in an adolescent state. There was a lot of energy, but it wasn’t really mature. It was still a small field, and every collector knew every other collector.” Sotheby’s New York sold a number of memorable daguerreotypes in that period, including one of Frederick Douglass that the Art Institute of Chicago bought for $185,000 in 1996.
But about five years ago, when Davis stopped collecting daguerreotypes in earnest, the market died down. Many other museums have been slow to acquire daguerreotypes, with the exception of a handful of examples, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Daguerreotypes are small, difficult to hang on a wall and tricky to light. “The physical intimacy and uniqueness of them are wonderful virtues,” says Davis, “but they are virtues that the marketplace doesn’t know what to do with.”
Top-quality works will still fetch high prices, of course: In April 2008 a half-plate daguerreotype by Southworth and Hawes of the Boston merchant Samuel Appleton sold at Sotheby’s New York for $409,000, far surpassing its high estimate of $90,000 and breaking Sotheby’s earlier record for a daguerreotype set back in 1999, when another Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype sold for $387,500. The highest price for a daguerreotype so far, however, was paid for one by French photographer Girault de Prangey. His Temple of Jupiter, Athens, (1842) sold for $922,488 at Christie’s London in May 2003. According to Bethel, if another great collection was discovered, those records could fall quickly. “With daguerreotypes, it’s what comes around. And so little comes around that it’s hard to chart a course.”
Contemporary daguerreotypes are generally not on the radar of traditional daguerreotype collectors, who tend to be more interested in the history surrounding the original 19th-century objects. Close, however, was drawn to the clarity and detail of the medium in presenting contemporary themes, and he turned to Jerry Spagnoli, a New York-based daguerreotypist, to help him. “Nothing gets lost,” he told The New York Times in 2000. In November 2006 a 2001 self-portrait daguerreotype diptych by Close sold at a Sotheby’s New York contemporary art sale for $42,000. A handful of other contemporary artists working in the medium include Irving Pobboravsky, Mark Kessell and Mike Robinson, whose work is in the Hallmark Collection as well as the George Eastman House. Pobboravsky’s daguerreotype still lifes sell at Christopher Wahren Fine Photographs in New Haven, Conn., for around $2,800.
These artists are drawn to the qualities that make this antiquated process so exquisite. It’s the same magic that draws daguerreotype collectors. As Cowan puts it, “There will never be a photographic process any better than the daguerreotype. It’s that good. If you can show me a paper photograph where you can look into the sitter’s eyes and see a reflection of the studio’s window, like you can with a daguerreotype, I’ll eat my hat.”