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Some Circus Photos are Worth a Thousand Bucks

by Larry Kellogg (10/07/09).

The Glasier photo of the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Bros. tents and midway sold in a recent internet auction for $203.

The Glasier photo of the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Bros. tents and midway sold in a recent internet auction for $203.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When it’s a circus photo, it can sometimes be worth a thousand dollars . . . or more. While most circus photos have a value of only a few dollars, collectors will pay hundreds of dollars or more for others.

This is just one of the many publicity photos for the 127th Edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1997 and 1998. Note the caption printed on the bottom of the photo.

This is just one of the many publicity photos for the 127th Edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1997 and 1998. Note the caption printed on the bottom of the photo.

Publicity photos produced by circuses are used to mail to the media in an effort to garner stories about the coming show. They feature individual acts and behind-the-scenes images. Large circuses like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will produce dozens of different photos for a single season. A small show might have one or two photos, sometimes stock images that may be used year after year. The size of these photos are usually 8 x 10 inches, or sometimes 5 x 7 inches. Most have a suggested caption printed on the front or back of the photo. These publicity photos are valued at $1 to $5.

Earlier publicity photos by Harry A. Atwell have a much greater value. Atwell began taking photos for Ringling Bros. in 1908 and for more than four decades was known as the “circus photographer.” Original Atwell photos can be identified by his stamp “H.A. Atwell Studio” on the back. His typical photos are $10 to $25. In 2008 an Atwell photo of aerialist Lillian Leitzel surrounded by clowns sold on an online auction for $114.

This classic publicity image was used by Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus for many years.

This classic publicity image was used by Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus for many years.

Snapshots taken by performers, other circus personnel and circus fans are very desirable because they often represent a one of a kind image. These are usually small in format and frequently show up in scrapbooks. These photos seldom show the performance but are shots taken behind the scenes in what is known as the circus backyard. Some photos show circus personnel posing for a photo, but if the background includes wagons, tents or other circus equipment, the value of the photo is greatly increased. Single photos of this type have been known to sell for several hundred dollars on an online auction. The difficulty with snapshots is determining originals from reproductions and sorting the ones that are truly one of a kind from the ones that have been mass produced and sold by circus fans. In most cases only those circus collectors with years of collecting experience can tell the difference.

Original photographs by Frederick W. Glasier are nearly impossible to find. Glasier took photos of many of the great circuses and even Buffalo Bill’s Real Wild West at the beginning of the last century. The original Glasier glass negatives are owned by The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. A 9 x 14 inch Glasier photo of circus ticket sellers sold on line recently for $70. A similar size photo of Merrick’s Circus Band sold for $102. A view of the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Bros. tents and midway sold for $203.

Harry Atwell shot this publicity photo of famous clown Felix Adler.

Harry Atwell shot this publicity photo of famous clown Felix Adler.

An original Atwell photo can be identified by this stamp on the back.

An original Atwell photo can be identified by this stamp on the back.

Some of the most sought after circus photographs are the large size inagmes taken by Edward J. Kelty in the 1920s and 1930s. His custom-built camera used 12 x 20 inch negatives. Kelty would gather together groups of personnel and take photos on the circus lot. He would process the film and make proofs to show to those in the photos and take orders. The final prints were ready to deliver before the show left town in the evening. Original Kelty photos seldom sell for less than $200. In recent years Kelty photos of side show attractions have sold for $1,500 to $2,000.

The last time this Kelty photo sold on line it brought $273. The image shows Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey under canvas in Brooklyn in 1931.

The last time this Kelty photo sold on line it brought $273. The image shows Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey under canvas in Brooklyn in 1931.

All the performers, executives and workers gathered together for this 1934 Kelty photo.

All the performers, executives and workers gathered together for this 1934 Kelty photo.

Col. Tim McCoy and his Congress of Rough Riders of the World posed for this large-size Kelty photo. They were featured performers in the 1935 edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Col. Tim McCoy and his Congress of Rough Riders of the World posed for this large-size Kelty photo. They were featured performers in the 1935 edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

However there are reproductions out there and they are only worth $10 to $20. An original photo is usually stamped on the back with “Century Flashlight Photographers” or “Edward J. Kelty Century Circus Photographer.”

kelty stamp 1

A “Century Flashlight Photographers" stamp

kelty stamp 2

A “Edward J. Kelty Century Circus Photographer” stamp


For more information on circus photos check out these books:

“Circus: The Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier,” by Peter Kayafas, Deborah Walk, Luc Sante. Copyright 2009. Eakins Press Foundation.

“Wild, Weird and Wonderful – The American Circus 1901-1927 As seen by F.W. Glasier, Photographer,” by Mark Sloan. Copyright 2003. The Quantuck Lane Press.

“Step Right This Way – The Photographs of Edward J. Kelty,” Edited by Miles Barth and Alan Siegel. Copyright 2002. Michael Friedman Publishing Group, Inc.

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Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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31 Responses to “Some Circus Photos are Worth a Thousand Bucks”

  1. Fine Estate says:

    …Cuz everyone both loves and fears a circus, photos of them will always fascinate us, and thrill us.

    Yours is an excellent post about Circus photos, and their various collectible categories.

    Thanks

    Martin

  2. carol brown says:

    Hello Worthpoint,
    i have some old circus side show postcards of man with 4 legs, fat lady, midgets, etc. Most are real photo. Do these have value like the photographs do? Carol in Maine

  3. Cheryl Thorp says:

    In 1965 or thereabouts our family visited Sarasota and the Ringling Winter quarters. The young lion trainer was new, and trying an act with tigers and horses. Goebel(?) became famous. We have home movies of his performance, as well as the day’s other sights there. Should these be preserved as to a possible worth to anyone? Thanks for your reply and input!

    • Larry Kellogg Larry Kellogg says:

      Yes you should have the movies transferred to DVD to preserve them. I’m wondering about your visit. In 1965 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Winter Quarters was in Venice, Florida. At the end of the 1959 season, the show closed the Winter Quarters in Sarasota and moved to Venice. You mention “Goebel.” Do you mean Gunther Gebel-Williams? If so he didn’t come to America until 1969. His act was with tigers, horses and elephants. If you transfer the film to DVD I’m sure the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota would love to have a copy of the DVD. They have a Gunther Gebel-Williams exhibit at the Museum.

  4. Cheryl Thorp says:

    Thanks Mr. Kellogg, as I was just a youngin, my date may be off, but it was Gunther for sure, young and golden. I’m hoping the footage is still in good shape, and will do what you suggest!

  5. Mukesh notani says:

    it is verygood Mukesh

  6. delia says:

    My mother used to be with RBBB many years ago. Antoinette Costello brought her to America from Germany around 1934…I have many photos and I’m always looking for programs that might have my mother featured in them…I’m wondering if anything I have from those days would be of value. I have a website with some photos.
    I enjoyed going through your website and viewing your photos and information.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Larry Kellogg Larry Kellogg says:

      Hello Delia,

      I enjoyed looking at your website. Programs from that period do not have a lot of value. You might be able to find more information by clicking the Research Your Items tab on Worthpoint.

    • Jo says:

      Hello Deilia,

      Looking for info. on Circus Costellos. Where are they from originally.

      Thank you,
      Jo-Anne

      Please use my email address jo-annep@rogers.com

  7. Barry says:

    How can you find the value of an HA Atwell original photograph. I have one of two boys about 10 dressed in knickers holding a metal bucket giving water to a huge elephant. In the background there is much activity going on setting or tearing down the circus. A man is riding a horse which is pulling something behind the boys and elephant. The stamp is on the back of the photo.
    Thanks Barry

  8. Ray says:

    It does’nt seem very easy to find a value to some things. I have a “souvenire- statue” of “buffalo Bill Cody” on a horse,throwing a lasso-rope, and it’s over 100 years old,and I can’t even FIND another one or anyone that knows anything about one.Supposedly,it was some sort of a “give-away” they had at their Wild-West-Show; it’s about a foot tall. Ray

    • Larry Kellogg Larry Kellogg says:

      Ray,
      Sounds like an interesting item, but from your description I don’t believe it was something that gave away at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
      Larry Kellogg

  9. Dale Blanshan says:

    Hi:

    Can you tell me the date of the Forepaugh and Sells picture that auctioned for $203?

    Dale Blanshan
    Rochester, MN

  10. Jim Wadden says:

    I have a large photo taken by EJ Kelty and stamped on the reverse side. Its a banquet photo of a large group attending a St. Patricks Day banquet in New York in 1934. I wonder if it is of value ?

  11. Rob says:

    Hello Larry.

    I am surprised to hear that you lived in C.G. as a kid. That is where I live now and I recently purchased an album of 89 Cole Bros. photos in an online auction. The photos are black and white in an old album showing circus wagons, advertising for Blacaman, unloading elephants from rail cars, sideshow posters, etc. etc. I am guessing that maybe they are from the 1930′s. I have not received them yet, but when I do I would like your opinion on them.

    If you are interested in previewing them on the auction site, please send me an email and I will direct you to the website.

    Thanks.

  12. joseph fava says:

    I have two photo of Edward J. Kelty they are 20 1/2 x 12 on date to “1932 , one is “1934″

    on the right side of the photo RINGLING BROS. AND BARUM & BAILEY CIRCUS 1934, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN (ALL CAPS) on the left side of photo Photo by CENTURY 74w 70 st.

    PHOTO #2 On the Right side of photo RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS MADISON AQUARE GARDEN (UNDER M.S. GARDEN dated 1932) . on the left side Photo by Century 74 w 70 St. New York City on back of photo stamp #1 #2 As you show above

    I would like to know the value of the PHOTHS, ( I just wand to be fair when I sell Them) if you can help me, I would like to sell them. I can send a PICT. of them if you like to see them THANKS joe fava PS I think I have More Photo by KELTY.

  13. Annie McPhail says:

    Mr. Kellogg I have a number of vintage photos from the 20′s and 30′s, a photobook by Bob Wallace of lotus the hippo and many film stars of that era. The front of the book has lotus’s head and the back cover is her rear. There is an autograph from Bob Wallace as well. My question is would this be of any value, I am a school teacher about to retire and my children are not interested in the photos?

  14. kathy hinkley says:

    Hello. Thank you for the article. I recently uncovered a treasure trove of Edward Kelty photos in my father in laws personal belongings. I have 41 original stamped prints mostly the 12 x 20, some are 8 x 10. I have cataloged them in a spreadsheet with basic description and sizes that I can send to prospective buyers. I also have an additional 9 8 x 10 photos (not stamped on the back) personally autographed/dedicated to one of my great great cousins who worked in the circus — signed by Flying Harolds, Clyde Beatty, Win and Con Concellos, and even a 12 x 20 signed my cowboy Tim McCoy and Sitting Bull, Sitting Bear, Chief Iron Breast and other chiefs. Wondered if you knew best avenue on how to secure a buyer for these collections and approximate value. Thanks for any help :)

    • Larry Kellogg Larry Kellogg says:

      Thank you for your question. The purpose of this response section is to ask questions or make comments about the article above. I am not allowed to evaluate items here. If you will click on the “Research Your Items” tab you will find two ways to find advice about value—the “Worthopedia – Price Guide” and “Ask a Worthologist – Expert Advice.” Your best avenue for selling the items would be at an on-line auction like eBay.

    • Will Kelty says:

      Hello Kathy, I just read your post, and am curious if you would share your spreadsheet with me. I’m actually EJ Kelty’s grandson, and did a documentary on him a couple of years ago. I’m not familiar with this forum, but my email is firstinitialofmyfirstnamelastname@gmail.com

    • Richard says:

      Hi Kathy, Your father in-law’s collection sounds wonderful. I’d enjoy seeing the list of the photographs. I collect circus photos, including those by Edward Kelty. I purchase large groups or individual pieces and will be happy to discuss your options. I can also connect you with other reputable collectors. Feel free to contact me: POVITAMU at OPTIMUM dot NET

  15. D.T. says:

    For great pics by Edward J. Kelty and other circus photographers see http://www.edwardjkelty.com

  16. Gregory Hawes says:

    Hey Larry,
    I have a Ringling Brothers picture mirror that has a picture of a clown and it says Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus see you at the greatest show on earth. Can you give me some info on this piece. If you can contact me at ghawes1970@gmail.com

    Thank You,

    Greg Hawes

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