Paranormal Photo Album Far Exceeds Expectations at Auction

A 1920s medium lies in a deep trance while a strange materialization of a face, veil and hair floats over her head. The image was said to be that of a long-deceased woman named Katie King.

As an appraiser, I try to scan the results of auctions in my interest area so I can stay on top of changing market trends. A Dec. 12, 2013, auction of photographs and photo albums, offered by Swann Auction Galleries, was mostly disappointing. Only 70 percent of the lots sold and total sales were 10-percent less than the low estimate.

Although a pair of very unique Andy Warhol self-portrait Polaroids sold for $26,000 (plus buyer’s premium), four other Warhol lots either didn’t sell at all or came in lower than anticipated. An Ansel Adams-signed silver print of Yosemite’s famous Half Dome was advertised with the show’s highest estimate of $35,000, but it didn’t sell, either.

However, one lot caught my eye. An album of 27 spiritualist photographs taken in the early 1920s sold for almost 20 times its estimate—a surprising outcome in any auction—but especially this one. I wanted to find out why.

The silver print photos depicted séances, levitation, ghostly apparitions and creepy emanations of ectoplasm oozing from eyes and mouths. The album was estimated to sell for between $4,000 and $6,000, but the hammer came down at $75,000 (totaling $93,750 with buyer’s premium added). It was the highest-selling item in the auction.

The photos were taken in the home office of Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton in Winnipeg, Canada. Hamilton (1873-1935) was a Canadian psychiatrist and a member of the Manitoba legislature. After the death of his young son, he and his family became interested in investigating the paranormal and searched for proof of the afterlife. He set up a “psychic room” with a large bank of cameras and recording equipment. He used the child’s Scottish nanny and her two sisters-in-law as mediums and invited friends and prominent acquaintances to regular séances. Participants included doctors, lawyers and even the famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. During the sessions, Hamilton took thousands of photos and documented occult phenomena such as telekinesis (moving and bending inanimate objects with mental processes), mental telepathy, table tipping (somewhat akin to Ouija board results), rapping and automatic writing.

An elevated table moves during a 1920s séance in Dr. Hamilton’s home.

A medium in a deep trance shows ectoplasm emanating from her face.

A bank of cameras was set up to record the paranormal activities in Hamilton’s psychic room.

Over the next 15 years, Hamilton became relatively famous, publishing articles, traveling and lecturing on his research. His wife and daughter continued his work after his death and authored a book on his experiments. They donated scrapbooks, séance attendance records, photographs, negatives, audios, news clippings, journal articles, speeches, promotional materials and correspondence to the University of Manitoba.

Many (if not all) of Hamilton’s photographs were later found to be fabricated. Ectoplasm was constructed from tissue paper. Moving objects were created by double negatives. Long-dead faces in the mist were simply old magazine cut-outs surrounded by smoke and netting. Nonetheless, the Hamilton archives have always held a strong attraction for those interested in spiritualism. The photographs have been featured in televisions shows, documentaries and horror movies. A research grant established by the Hamilton family provides ongoing funds for scholars to study the collection.

The high-selling price of the photo album undoubtedly stems from the association with Hamilton, an interest in material cultural expression and a fascination with anything extrasensory. But there is also an additional trend in play. Another lot that exceeded expectations in this auction was a 1921 San Francisco police department mug shot album. It included 700 photos of pimps, embezzlers, robbers, murderers and rapists (each photo had the perpetrator’s crime rubber-stamped below the image). This assortment of losers sold for $18,000 ($22,500 with buyer’s premium). Other mug shot lots also sold very well, as did similar lots over the past few months.

A small file drawer with 46 cataloged mug shots of shoplifters (mostly women) from the 1940s sold for $5,500 (with buyer’s premium) on Oct. 17, 2013. It shows an increasing upward trend in the values of vernacular photography.

A growing interest in vernacular art (created by those who don’t recognize themselves as artists) is reaching into the photographic marketplace. Vernacular photography includes amateur, domestic and workplace snapshots that become unintentional art. These can consist of identification photos (like mug shots), research photos (like Hamilton’s) or even quirky family pictures of vacations and costume parties. They are appearing in museum exhibitions, art galleries and magazines with increasing frequency. It’s a trend worth noting and will be explored in a future WorthPoint article.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.

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