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.