Some Circus Photos are Worth a Thousand Bucks

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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