How to identify valuable vintage photographs



2016-06-01 15:46:36

Old photographs offer a fascinating window onto a lost world.

It’s also an area of collecting with a large and enthusiastic following. Some have sold for millions in the past.

Here are some things to look out for next time you find yourself perusing a stack of vintage photographs.


Photography is a fairly young medium, having only developed in the 19th century. A vast range of different methods for taking photographs were developed in these early years, from daguerreotypes to photogravure.

Provided the condition is good and the composition is vaguely interesting, most pre-1900 photographs are worth at least a couple of dollars while some can go for thousands – even millions.


The first photo prints are known as daguerreotypes, after inventor Louis Daguerre.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

They are copper plates covered with silver and were in use from the 1820s until the 1850s.

These are typically the most sought after types of vintage photographs.

There are a broad range of others - including ambrotypes, ferrotypes and carte de visite (CDV) - which can also sell well depending on the subject.

Most can be identified fairly easily by the material they’re printed on, with ambrotypes being printed on glass, ferrotypes on iron and CDVs on paper.

Keep an eye out for...

The most valuable photographs are those that have a tangible connection with history. Photographs of famous military operations, well known cities and famous faces are all very popular.

Perhaps unsurprisingly erotic photographs also enjoy a large market too.


After 1900 Kodak introduced the Brownie, the first commercially affordable camera, and the number of photographs produced exploded.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Photographs from this era are generally less valuable, although images associated with important events from the 20th century can be very valuable.

Keep an eye out for…

Photographs of the Titanic, for example, can make tens of thousands of dollars due to their extreme rarity.

Where to buy and sell

While some sellers on eBay may be clueless about what they have, most will be knowledgeable.

It’s best to limit your searches to flea markets and antiques stores, where you have more chance of picking up a bargain and making a profit. 

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