Photography has become a very collectible art form, with Elton John just being one of many high-profile and deep-pocketed collectors. But what about collecting for the rest of us?
If you tend to walk past boxes or albums of old photos at antiques fairs or flea markets, you might be missing out. Back in 2007, John Maloof paid $400 for a collection of black and white photographs at a Chicago flea market. The photographer, the late Vivian Maier, is now hailed as one of America’s greatest street shooters. Last year, auctioneers Dominic Winter in Gloucestershire sold an album of old China images by the Victorian travel photographer John Thomson (below) for an impressive £48,000.
But can you really make serious money from old photographs? How do you know what you’ve got, and where can you sell them? It’s important to start off slowly and apply some common sense. Keen-eyed collectors have already snapped up (pardon the pun) a lot of hidden gems, and old family snaps of non-celebrities are unlikely to have much value beyond the sentimental.
Author and photography curator, Gerry Badger (author of the classic book Collecting Photography) suggests starting off by buying old photographs which you’d like to see hanging on your wall. If you fall in love with a picture it’s more than likely someone else will when you try and sell it on.
When it comes to ‘hot’ genres, print dealers currently prize hand-coloured photographs, cartes de visite, press prints and early views of neglected corners of the world. As with the example of John Thomson, images of old China and India are particularly sought-after. To get an idea of current value of old Chinese and Japanese images, and pick up some valuable tips, see Terry Bennett’s informative online store at www.oldasiaphotography.com.
As well as the Far East, images of the Holy Land are also in demand, says Richard Fattorini of Sothebys (below). “Certain places, for example Mecca and Medina, were not shot until the late 19th century. The first photo in the Amazon was only taken in 1860s, too, as these places were very hard to get to back then.”
As with all antiques, the condition of any prints or negatives you buy is really important. If you think you might have picked up some images from a famous photographer, provenance matters, such as ‘contact sheets’ with their name, or similar means of identification. Common sense dictates that the better known the photographer, the more valuable their work will be, but as with Vivian Maier this is not always the case of their work is of very high quality.
The next stage is to get objective advice. So rather than accepting a quick £50 from a local antique dealer, get the images valued by a reputable auctioneer. Some bigger ones, including Sothebys, have an easy-to-use online valuation service which serves as a starting point. Valuations are usually free, but you pay commission based on the final selling price, which can be quite a hefty sum. Ideally you want your prints/albums/slides to be part of a specialist photography sale, thus attracting the best bids from genuinely interested parties.
If you want to bag a bargain pay special attention to any lots that fail to meet the reserve agreed between the seller and the auctioneer. These lots are described as ‘bought in’, and ownership remains with the vendor. The auctioneer will draw attention to such pieces by saying ‘pass’ or ‘unsold’, and move along quickly. If this happens to a print you’re interested in it’s worth approaching a member of staff at the end of the sale and offering to pay the reserve price. If the owner agrees, the piece is yours.
Once having acquired some old photographs which you think might be valuable, make sure you handle them properly. It’s best to wear Nitrile gloves and lay a print emulsion-side up on a thick board rather than carrying it in your hands. For very old photographs, such as daguerreotypes, careful handling is even more critical. Get advice from the Royal Photographic Society or a specialist museum, such as the V & A, if you are unsure.
Last but not least, don’t disregard photo books (actual books of photography rather than dated ‘how to’ guides by people like John Hedgecoe). As Richard Fattorini of Sotheby’s explains, “photo books are not as valuable as original images but original illustrations always retain their value. The photographer and collector Martin Parr has given a lot of publicity to photo books and this is an affordable way to collect photography.”
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