A remarkable affair involving a major auction house, an eminent photohistorian and an early photograph

An excerpt from What’s wrong with Daguerre? – by Hans Rooseboom.

Writer / Hans Rooseboom

In 2008 the photohistoric community witnessed a remarkable affair involving a major auction house, an eminent photohistorian and an early photograph. Sotheby’s New York office announced the auction of a photograph that, if the attribution was correct, would amount to “one of the most important discoveries in the history of photography.” Sotheby’s implied that the picture, known simply as “Leaf”, may be the oldest existing photograph in the world. The auction house attributed the picture to Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805), who is known to have made – but not been able to preserve – photographs before 1802. Should this prove to be true, the implication was the dethronement of Frenchman Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) as the creator of the oldest preserved photograph, made in 1826 or 1827. Larry J. Schaaf, the renowned American authority on early British photography, sanctioned the Wedgwood attribution and penned the picture’s entry in Sotheby’s catalogue. However, following an outcry from the photohistoric community concerning the authenticity of the attribution, the photograph was ultimately withdrawn from auction.

This affair cannot be dismissed as a single unfortunate incident, as it continues a long tradition dating back more than 150 years. Ever since the introduction of photography in 1839, the merits of each would-be claimant to the title of ‘inventor of photography’ have periodically been overemphasized by either themselves or excessively enthusiastic photohistorians. Their arguments are more often based on the nationalities of the inventors, or influenced by other factors that will be discussed in this essay (What’s wrong with Daguerre?), than on any concrete evidence. Wishful thinking and intentional short-sightedness have played a significant role in this priority dispute and continue to do so, as demonstrated by the Sotheby’s/Wedgwood case in 2008. The implicit question is: has photohistory reached the level of maturity and balance necessary to relate an unbiased and non-judgemental account of the invention of photography?

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7 thoughts on “A remarkable affair involving a major auction house, an eminent photohistorian and an early photograph”

  1. Just in case anyone is still interested in this discussion five years later, I suggest that they read the account by Larry Schaaf himself, posted on 19 June 2015 on the Fox Talbot blog: http://foxtalbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/blog/
    They can then judge for themselves whether, as Mr Roseboom puts it above: “Larry J. Schaaf … sanctioned the Wedgwood attribution.”

  2. To Mike Ware: I have of course read Larry Schaaf’s entry in Sotheby’s catalogue (New York 7-8 April 2008, lot no. 43) – if that is what you mean by “the original text by Dr. Schaaf”. Withdrawing an item from auction is never a good sign, especially not if the item has at first been given much publicity – as Sotheby’s did with its press release that said: “Such an authorship, if confirmed, would make this photogenic drawing one of the most important discoveries in the history of photography.” By withdrawing the picture from auction the Leaf picture has certainly not reached that status. This case may serve as an example of how much excitement may be caused by a new move in the old priority dispute, i.e. the dispute who invented photography (Daguerre, Niépce, Talbot, Bayard?). The rest of What’s wrong with Daguerre? is reconsidering many views – both old and new – on this topic. One of the conclusions is that wishful thinking and preconceptions, national pride and commercial attitudes still play a significant role in photohistoric writing.

  3. To Christer Törnkvist: yes, it is all there. The book is a careful evaluation of what has been written about the invention of photography and of the aspects that have coloured numerous articles and books featuring the inventors – especially Daguerre and Talbot – over the years. I have included quite some examples and notes that refer to specific sources.

  4. I suggest reading the original text by Dr. Schaaf (on Sotheby’s website or the PhotoHistory Archive) before accepting the conclusions of this “excerpt”. The story is not that simple, and we have not yet heard the end of it – as Dr Schaaf makes clear.

  5. This is a real blockbuster and I googled around to find any scientic publications. As any new research a topic like this needs to be possible to evaluate and including sources. This is important in the field of art history. Maybe I was to quick to get anything. Is this a recent result?
    Is all this in thee book?

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