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Collecting Daguerreotypes: Focus in on the Famous and the Unknown Alike

by Wes Cowan (04/12/11).

Long-lost to history, this portrait of a self-assured John Brown, was made by the African American daguerreotypist Augustus Washington in 1846-47. The clean-shaven Brown stares intently and directly at the viewer with a steely gaze and the hint of a knowing smile. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

Collecting daguerreotypes—19th century silver plated photographs—can be a thrilling hunt for any antique fan. The number of collectors looking for these early images has greatly increased since the 1970s, as have the prices for some of the rarest and finest examples.

A daguerreotype is an image captured on a thin layer of silver recognizable by its distinctive mirrored surface. The earliest type of commercial photography, present day daguerreotype value is driven by the artifact condition and, even more important, the uniqueness of the subject matter.

An early photograph of the famous abolitionist John Brown by noted photographer Augustus Washington is an excellent example of a rare and highly sought after subject. Captured sometime in 1846-47, the image hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and is recognized to be the earliest photograph of Brown.

Recently, a second daguerreotype of Brown taken by Washington surfaced in Cincinnati and is believed to have been captured at the same time as the image in the National Portrait Gallery.

John Brown is best known as the passionate abolitionist that was hung for treason in 1859. Born in Connecticut, he spent much of his life in Ohio. In 1837, Brown publicly declared, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!” He later founded the “Subterranean Pass Way,” as the militant counterpart to the Underground Railroad.

Long lost to history, the portrait descended directly from the family of John Brown. It was passed down from Brown’s daughter to her granddaughter and was given to her grandson as a wedding present in 1949. It is a significant part of American history.

The identity of the photographer can also add value and desirability to a piece of early photography. The son of a South Asian mother and a man who had been a slave in Virginia, Augustus Washington was born free in Trenton, N.J. He enjoyed reading antislavery literature and attending abolitionist meetings. Thanks to some assistance by abolitionists, Washington attended several colleges in the late 1830s and early 1840s.

While attending Dartmouth College, he supported himself by taking portraits of Dartmouth faculty and citizens of Hanover, N.H. He continued his photography while living in Hartford and opened a studio. This studio is the site of the famous images of John Brown.

For beginning collectors, something like this framed daguerreotype of two oval portraits, housed in a half case, can be had for as little as $60. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

Washington succeeded in capturing the evangelical character and stubborn rigidity of an independent-minded loner. Both Brown’s pious and militant nature is evident in his striking portrait. His was an anxious, restless, ferocious zealot’s soul.

Daguerreotypes are excellent antiques for collectors on any budget. Subject, photographer and condition are all factors to consider when trying to determine the value and importance of an image. While fine examples of anonymous subjects are sold for as little as $25, an image attributed to historical heavy-hitters like Brown and Washington can bring thousands.

In 2007, the long-lost portrait of John Brown $97,750.

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at info@historicamericana.com.

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