7 Things You Need To Know About Collecting Vintage Photographs



2018-03-16 16:27:41

From the 20th century's most iconic images, to mysterious Polaroids found in junk stores – collecting vintage photographs can bring you works that stir your soul, and take you back in time. If you're thinking of starting a vintage photography collection, here are seven things you need to know...

Types of photograph

An antique 19th century daguerrotype portrait

An antique 19th century daguerrotype portrait

There are several types of photographs and prints to look for.

Antique photographs taken in the 19th century fall under five different categories, each marking a new stage in the development of photography. They are:

-Daguerreotypes (images printed onto a silvered copper plate)
-Ambrotypes (printed onto a sheet of glass)
-Tintypes (printed onto an iron plate)
-Carte de Visites, or CDVs (small paper prints mounted on card, measuring 2.5 x 4 inches)
-Cabinet cards (larger paper prints measuring 6.5 x 4.3 inches)

With the invention of film in 1883, and the development of easy-to-use commercial cameras, these types of image were soon replaced with the traditional photographic print.

20th century fine art photography prints will generally be one of two types, depending on whether the image is in colour or black and white.

Vintage colour photographs will usually be chromogenic prints (or C-Prints), created from colour negatives by exposing photographic paper to emulsive chemical layers.

Vintage black and white art photographs will usually be listed as 'gelatin silver prints'; a wet development process, using paper coated with a layer of silver salts and gelatine. This technique was developed in the late 19th century, and has traditionally been used for black and white images ever since.

What to collect

Young Velvets, Young Prices by Norman Parkinson for Vogue Magazine, circa 1949

Young Velvets, Young Prices by Norman Parkinson for Vogue Magazine, circa 1949

No matter what your interest, the best advice for budding collectors is simple: collect what you love, and what you can afford.

A photography collection is an extension of your own personality, so choose images that you connect with, regardless of the photographer, subject or period.

As you begin to build your collection, a theme may start to emerge among your favourite photos that you can develop further.

Antique cabinet cards, 1940s fashion photography, abstract still life works, 19th century nudes, original press photographs, or images of Halloween – you can develop a vintage photography collection around almost anything.

As you go on, you may develop a love for a particular photographer. Do some research and learn more about them. It'll help you understand how the photographs you own fit into their wider body of work.

Vintage Prints

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967, by Diane Arbus

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967, by Diane Arbus

The value of a photograph largely depends on when the print was made, and how many copies were produced.

For collectors, the term "vintage print" applies to photographs printed by the artist themselves, or under their close supervision, soon after the original negative was created.

These prints will have been developed using the artist's chosen materials and procedures, producing a photograph as close to their original creative vision as possible.

The idea that a famous photographer handled the prints themselves makes them far more valuable, and they will often bear a signature in the same manner as an original painting.

Limited editions printed after around 1970 will usually be signed and numbered by the photographer themselves. They may also feature a stamp on the reverse, or a certificate of authenticity from the artist.

Sometimes an edition will be produced over the course of several years, so earlier-numbered prints (e.g. "3/25") are always more desirable.

Older prints are not usually numbered in this way, and it can be a little harder to discover exactly how many copies were made. However, the information usually exists somewhere, often in sale records or the historic archive of the photographer, so if in doubt contact an expert to research your print.

Good dealers, galleries and auction houses should be able to provide this information for any photographs you purchase.

Modern prints

A modern print of a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, signed and numbered by the original photographer Bert Stern

A modern print of a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, signed and numbered by the original photographer, Bert Stern

If the negatives of a photograph are correctly stored they can last for years, meaning new prints can be made at any time.

Therefore "modern prints" are those made years, and sometimes decades, after the original photograph was taken.

The value of modern prints can depend heavily on who made them. If they were produced by the photographer themselves at a later date, in a signed limited edition run, they are still highly collectible.

Many new editions of old photographs are produced by the photographer's family, or by someone who worked closely with them, using the same printing techniques as the originals.

The later the print, and the further removed it is from the original, the more likely it is to have been produced for commercial instead of artistic purposes.

Often these more recent limited edition runs will be produced without the photographer's supervision, or after their death.

So a print made by the artist themselves in 1972, in an edition of 25, from a photograph taken in 1970, will be far more valuable than one reprinted by someone else in 2003, in an edition of 250.

As long as the prints were produced by a reputable source, with a close link to the photographer, they should still be considered valuable.

These modern prints can also offer a great way of collecting iconic images, especially if the much rarer original vintage prints are out of your price range.


As with any vintage collectible, the condition of a photograph is a key element to its value.

Torn, stained or faded photographs will obviously hold less value, but the quality of the image itself isn't necessarily important to the price.

A large modern print of a photograph may look sharper, with stronger colours and depth of shadow than a vintage print, but the older photograph will always be more sought after due to its closer connection to the artist, even if it doesn't look quite as good on the wall.

When it comes to antique photographs such as daguerreotypes and tintypes, a level of wear and tear is expected. Although daguerreotypes were housed behind glass in ornamental cases, they will still usually be tarnished around the edges. 

The nature of these unique images mean they were easily scratched and marked, but this damage won't necessarily harm the value if the subject of the photograph is unusual or historically important.

Vintage press photographs will display creases and finger marks, and often pencil marks and annotations, as they were passed around busy newsrooms and used by printers with deadlines. You should still seek the cleanest examples you can, but this wear is all part of their history and charm.

To ensure your vintage photographs remain in good condition, it's important to display or store them correctly.

Prints should be professionally framed using UV glass, and never hung on the wall in direct sunlight. This will protect them from fading. You should also avoid hanging them near a heat source such as a radiator.

If you're keeping some of your photographs stored away, make sure you store them flat between sheets of acid-free archival paper or in an archival sleeve. Always handle them gently, and wear gloves to prevent finger marks or staining.

Where to buy

You can find vintage photographs almost anywhere, from yard sales to the world's most exclusive auction houses.

Flea markets, estate sales and local antique stores can be great sources for collectors, and you can usually find boxes of old photos or complete albums for a few dollars.

Hunting through these boxes in search of treasure is one of the joys of collecting. They might not be particularly rare or valuable, but these vintage images can offer a fascinating window into history.

If you're looking to collect works by famous photographers, professional dealers and recognised auction houses are the safest places to buy.

Many leading auction houses have dedicated photograph departments, and hold specialist sales several times each year. You'll be able to acquire photographs with an established provenance, which will help them hold their value in the long-term.

For high-end collectors, and those looking for investment-grade photographs, building a good relationship with a dealer or photography gallery is key.

Their expertise can help guide you through the high-end photography market, which can be daunting for new collectors, and their range of contacts will mean you will have better access to rare, sought-after prints.

One more thing...

Billy the Kid playing croquet with his gang in the summer of 1878

Billy the Kid playing croquet with his gang in the summer of 1878

When it comes to vintage photography, you never know when you might stumble onto something remarkable.

Back in 2010, collector Randy Guijarro found an old photo among a box of junk at an antique shop in Fresno, California. He paid just $2 for it, but when he got it home he noticed something interesting.

It appeared to be an image of Old West outlaw Billy the Kid, of whom only one known photograph existed. Guijarro then spent the next five years having the photograph authenticated by a series of experts, before it was eventually valued at an incredible $5 million.

When the story appeared on TV in 2015, it caught the attention of another collector, Frank Abrams.

In 2011 he'd paid $10 for an Old West photograph to hang in his guest room, without knowing who was actually in it.

Billy the Kid (second left) and the man who killed him, Pat Garrett (far right)

Billy the Kid (second left) and the man who killed him, Pat Garrett (far right)

Closer inspection revealed one of the men appeared to be Billy the Kid himself. And further along was another famous Old West figure: Pat Garrett, the man who eventually killed him.

Two years and five cross-country trips later, experts concluded he had found the only known photo featuring history's most famous outlaw and the sheriff who shot him down.

It's estimated value? $10 million.

So the next time you see a box of old photographs for sale, get digging, just in case.

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