Sunday, 26 February 2012

How much is an old photo worth, and how long IS a piece of string??

These two questions go hand in hand although the latter seems to be an easier one to answer. 

I buy and sell old photos and postcards for a living, that’s a full-time living, with kids, a dog, a ridiculously high electricity bill, the whole package, so I need to have a fair idea of what I’m buying to keep my ‘dealers’ badge rather than become a full time collector with expensive taste!  I buy my photos the old fashioned way, by door knocking established areas and simply asking to purchase old albums and odd black and white photos. To most people, this may seem a little daunting, but let me assure you, it’s easy and most of the time, fun.  It’s always nice to see the change of expression on people’s faces when you tell them you’re not selling anything….you’re BUYING!

Rhine II
Let’s get the juices flowing first. The most expensive photo ever sold is Andreas Gursky's Rhine II, a simple (and I do stress SIMPLE) photo of a bit of water, a band of sky and some thin strips of grass (just saying it how it is), it fetched $4.3 million dollars on November the 11th 2011. The next most expensive photo was a self portrait by Cindy Sherman as a younger girl lying on a tiled floor (I’m trying hard not to be cynical ), it fetched $3.89 million dollars in May 2011. Now I can continue down the list, but you can tell we are talking about art, not so much the photo. 
Billy the Kid
However, in 6th place on the all time expensive list is a rather weathered snap of Billy the Kid, the famous American outlaw, this managed a modest $2.3 million also in 2011. This photo is what I term ‘real’, not artistic for arts sake, but historical, topical and not stylised.  I can hear you saying the likely hood of finding photos like these amongst someone’s albums is nil. As for the artsy stuff, I have to agree, but as far as images of famous historical people, or images of historical importance, the odds are higher than you think.

Ebay has been the go to hub of collectors for years now.  With a few short clicks a wealth of information is paraded past you giving you a sense of ‘know it all’ power, having the value of nearly everything at your finger tips.  In December 2011, an album containing snaps of Military China sold for more than $6600, and another Chinese album for $6400.  An Egyptian album went for $5000, $3000 for photos of dental equipment!!  I myself recently sold an album of WW1 snaps for a little over $1600. This is only within the last month, and I haven’t even started on the signed portraits. I bought an album last year and found 3 old gentlemen from the early 1900’s all signed at the bottom, a little research later and I realised I was looking at 3 Australian Prime Ministers. A few years ago I had the privilege of selling one of my photos to a Texas museum after uncovering the man in question was in fact Buffalo Bill Cody.
Buffalo Bill Cody

Now be assured, it’s not all diamonds and hot meals, there’s alot of ‘stuff’ you have to wade through to discover the gems, but even in the most mundane of photos, there’s a collector with an interest. Who would of thought that pictures of men with beards, tricycles, fishing rods, aeroplanes, cows, beach gymnastics, would all have a dollar value. CDV (Carte de Visite) albums are fascinating. French for Visiting Card, these types of photos were predominately portraits and ranged from approx. 1854 through to 1890. They were an albumen print which means egg whites were used in the developing (reason why most turn yellow with age) with the image attached to a stiff card back often with the studio’s name printed at the bottom.  Here amongst the small pocket sized images you will find mostly family shots, but also some very (expensive) famous people, as the card was often replicated and sold on as either a business card or advertisement. People of notoriety have a habit of wanting to be remembered, so not many shied away from this new technology that promised them eternity. From about 1875 till 1905 Cabinet cards were very popular. Similar to CDV’s, they were larger in size and are found to have more landscape images on them, as the camera was evolving and making it’s way outdoors. 

Gold Miners 1880
 In this era just before the turn of the century, virtually all these types of photos will have a good dollar value, but the best of them can skyrocket. As you flip through hundreds of images you will start to notice the ones that stand out a little more, people with a uniform, a penny farthing bike, a shot of a grocery store, or an official gathering. Remember that photos at this time were the domain of the wealthy and not as common as the family album of today. For the average in this category each photo will be worth approximately $1-$5, the stand outs should get between $40 - $100, with some research and as much information as possible, a good photo card normally fetches between $100 - $500.

The invention of the Box Brownie ( you push the button, we do the rest ) by Kodak revolutionised the world of photography when it was invented just after 1900 and sold on mass around 1920. Now one in every three homes had access to a camera, and as with all new technology, everyone was excited and eager to push the boundaries. We had an insight into war like never before. It’s these early, sometimes grainy shots of action in the trenches that still fascinate the collectors today. Small ‘field’ photos average between $10 - $100 depending on the level of action. 
Landing at Anzac Cove
Group photos of Battalions (often printed on postcards) should get between $20 - $120 depending on the level of action the soldiers had seen (e.g. Australian 10th battalion landing at Gallipoli). It’s not uncommon to find small albums containing one man’s journey through WW1, these along with any supporting paraphernalia that creates a ‘package’ often get the best prices, average $200 - $2000.

As industry booms, the record of every new invention becomes a legacy that needs to be captured on film. Popular photos from the 1920’s to the 1950’s include; Trains, buses, aeroplanes, ships, buildings, bridges, factories, and even movie theatres. Anything that will announce to the world  ‘How great is man’s creation’. It’s not yet the place for natural, artistic landscapes. It does however include ‘landmarks’, that people are seeing for the first time with the luxury of fast, economical world travel. The Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Suez Canal are just a few of the more common shots I come across. All of these original snaps have value, starting from around $3-$5 each to mega bucks if you own a photo of something world renown that no longer can be photographed, e.g. The Titanic (launching photo sold recently $2750), The Hindenburg in flight ($1100) and so on. Sport is another huge arena when it comes to pricey photos. The likes of Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, and of course ‘our Don Bradman’ even in a candid pose can bring anywhere from $100 upward, and a good majority can be found signed, which will just make the image skyrocket! 
Don Bradman Invincibles

Always remember one golden rule. Only buy original photo’s or slide’s! Copies, reprints, book images, calendar shots, and newspaper images are, in nearly all circumstances (rare exceptions) are worthless.

So if you are buying to sell, be wary and in the beginning, be cheap. Get to know your buyers and the things that make them go Mmmm. If you are a collector, always pick a genre that appeals to you, something fun. It’s great to learn more about a topic with the aid of great photos. Ultimately, like all keen collectors, you will also become the teacher, and pass on your knowledge to others of like mind.
“Do something you love, and the money will come”

By the way, for those still wrestling with the latter question. A piece of string is defined as being long enough to use on a small task but not long enough to have an excess amount left over, this worldly measurement comes in at 47 centimetres !!

Feel free to check out my vintage photos at