Unknown Harriet Tubman portrait owned by 19th century Quaker teacher of freed blacks

This unknown image of Harriet Tubman (1822 – 1913) at approximately 48 years of age was among a total of forty-four carte-de-visite photographs found in the album of Quaker school teacher, Emily Howland (1827-1929).  The album was presented “To Miss Emily Howland, from her Friend Carrie Nichols, January 1st, 1864, Camp Todd, Virginia.”  Ms. Howland, whose parents were Quaker abolitionists in New York,  was a teacher at Myrtilla Miner’s School for Economically Stable Black Females in Washington during the antebellum period, and served escaped slaves in a contraband camp during the Civil War.

The album is found in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian.  This portrait of Harriet Tubman was made by photographer, Benjamin F. Powelson (1823 – 1885), Auburn, New York.

The album (lot 75) sold at Swann Auction Galleries’s sale of Printed and Manuscript African Americana (March 30, 2017) for $ 161,000 (including buyer’s premium).  The sales estimate was $20,000-30,000.  The Tubman image is the cover of the sale catalog.

Benjamin F. Powelson, Carte-de-visite portrait of Harriet Tubman, 1868-1869

Discussion on the History of the Photography Market – 40 Years

The transformation of photography in the last decades is nothing short of revolutionary — and has been driven largely by the marketplace in art photography that began in the 1970s. This panel [presented at the April 2013 Association of International Photography Art Dealers show in New York City] explores the 40-year-old photo market with leading experts.

Speakers: Catherine Edelman, Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago; Celso Gonzalez-Falla, chairman of the board, Aperture Foundation; Duane Michals, artist; Susanna Wenniger, senior specialist, photography, Artnet. Moderator is Jill Arnold, director, business development, AXA Art Insurance Corporation.

AIPAD panel

Checklist for Buying Vintage Photographs

I’ve been re-reading parts of Richard Blodgett’s book Photographs: A Collector’s Guide over the last few weeks and am amazed at the prices for vintage prints at $50, $100, and $500 — back in 1978-79. I’m talking about major nineteenth and early twentieth century photo stars such as Carleton Watkins, Edward S. Curtis, and Imogen Cunningham. Alas, in today’s market, one can become easily frustrated by the criteria for what constitutes a “vintage photograph.” Good judgment and caution should always prevail…along with the best resources to guide your process.

In Lisa Hunter’s book, The Intrepid Art Collector: the Beginners Guide to Finding, Buying, and Appreciating Art on a Budget, she details a checklist for buying vintage photographs. Xerox and take it with you for guerilla collecting pursuits. From the book:

Checklist for Buying Vintage Photography

Who is the photographer, and how important is he or she to the history of photography?

Did the photographer print this image or supervise its printing? If not, it’s not considered in the same category as the photographer’s own work.

What kind of print is it? A high-quality print made for an exhibition, or a quick-and-dirty proof made on flimsy paper?

Is the image sharp and well detailed? Reproductions may look “fuzzy.”

When was the picture printed? For a piece to be “vintage,” it must have been printed with a few years after the negative was made. “Later” pieces usually sell for less, even though they may be very good quality.

Is it in good condition?

Who owned it before you? Can the dealer account for where it’s been all those years? If not, it may be a later copy. Insist on seeing other proof that the picture is genuinely old.

When you shine a black light on the photo, does it glow? If it does, that’s a sign that it was printed later than the mid-1950s.

You can listen to Lisa being interviewed on Authentic Contemporary Art’s ArtCast (see Thursday, June 26th, 2008).

Buy this book. It’s a keeper.