What motivates people to buy an antique photo? Serious photography collectors of course, seek high-value photos with historical or artistic significance due to the scene or person captured, the early photographic and printing methods used, or the photographer’s notoriety.
But people who are not specifically photography collectors are also drawn to vintage photographs for a variety of reasons. These include attraction to the aesthetic richness of the image or appreciation for its inherent visual commentary that is thought-provoking or smile-inducing. Or a photo might have a connection to a subject matter that relates to one’s broader areas of collecting or interest (e.g., railroads, dolls, barber shops).
Old photos can also remind people of a place or pastime they have enjoyed – an image of a person skating or an old farmhouse shaded by a maple tree need not be exactly identifiable to evoke nostalgia. Finally, there are photos of an actual place that one knows well, but captured in an earlier era, thereby putting one’s experience of it into historical perspective; that is what attracted me (Jeff) to this photo.
The 7” x 9” black-and-white image captures a circa 1910-1920 scene on Grand Lake in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park, a 2,946 square mile preserve of lakes and rivers established in 1893 which quickly became a desirable destination for wilderness canoe tripping.
I spent many summers canoeing, camping and guiding in Algonquin Park, and have paddled by this exact spot. I found (and kept) a print of this image 15 years ago, so this one is now going to a customer for whom it also triggers positive associations with lakes and canoeing.
As antiques dealers, we look seriously at thousands of objects a year and develop a strong sense of the market value of antiques within our purview. Yet innumerable categories of antiques fall outside of our expertise. A recent experience purchasing something not within our familiar realm gave me (Kass) empathy for people who are attracted to antiques, but are intimidated because they have no touchstones for price structure.
This dilemma was brought home to me while shopping for glass shades that would be appropriate for the original, early 20th century brass sconces and a chandelier in the house we are restoring.
When Jeff first saw a pair of these shades I was immediately smitten, but thought that they seemed expensive. Through the decision-making process, I challenged myself to deconstruct what I meant by “expensive” – did it mean being overpriced for what they are (i.e., I could find the exact objects in the same excellent condition elsewhere for less money), or did it mean having a significant price because they are (now and presumably in the future should I want to sell them) rare, good, and desirable in the marketplace? The former would mean I would not feel good about buying them, and the latter would help to justify the expenditure.
Occasionally a new customer will wonder aloud how to know if something is a fair price. I remember one person in particular who kept coming by our booth at a show and glancing in, then on one walk-by showing disappointment to see a sold sign on a set of Old Hickory dining chairs. He then spoke up saying, “I really liked those, but they seemed expensive.” His comment aroused my curiosity, so I asked “Expensive as compared to what?” In fact, the person who had purchased the chairs was an experienced buyer of rustic furniture who had remarked that they were a good value.
The visitor responded that it was a good question, and upon reflecting said he was probably subconsciously comparing them to the price of contemporary chairs he had seen in furniture stores while shopping to furnish his ski condo. As someone drawn to attend an antiques show as an alternative to considering modern mass-produced furniture, he was gradually gathering the knowledge and confidence to make his first significant purchase.