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Buying Daguerreotypes

A primer for unravelling the mysteries of the daguerreotype marketplace.

In addition to discussing condition (which can be found below this narrative), I want to explain how I buy daguerreotypes “in the field”, which might be at shows, shops or when I visit other dealers and collectors.

My first rule is “know thy ability to pay for the daguerreotype.” As an example; if the price exceeds $1,000 will I need to call my banker, my mother or my kids. In the first case, I’m always sure that I can get a fourth mortgage on my house. The second instance is a little iffy, “Money for what?” and the final recourse is questionable because you never know how much cash is in the “old piggy bank.” One word of sound advice, never ask your spouse or best friend for the loan!

I generally approach each buying venue as an opportunity to expand my own collection and I have an iron clad theme, “if you don’t love the daguerreotype enough to keep it, then don’t buy it,” even if you are absolutely sure that another collector or dealer would die to have the piece. I have heard so many complaints from people involved in the business about how they wish they had never bought a certain plate or how they bought it just for you and then “you” refused to make the purchase from them. There just isn’t any certainty or magic formula in the field of daguerreotypes that will guarantee a sale!

So, as a collector, you must religiously work on creating a theme for your collection and along the way, assemble as much knowledge as possible to re-enforce your instincts and visual acumen. Buying daguerreotypes after they have been reglassed and professionally resealed is easiest because there shouldn’t be any filth on the glass to mask potential problems on the plate. If the plate does have dirty glass, then it is imperative to learn the distinctions of what is on the underside of the glass as opposed to problems with the surface of the plate. In either instance, it is necessary to view the daguerreotype in the best possible light. If you know the dealer who you are working with, he or she will allow you to visit another booth that might have better illumination or maybe to an area with natural brightness. When the dealer is a stranger and you are shopping with young children, quickly offer to leave the kids at the booth while you examine the piece elsewhere. (The possibilities here are endless, just kidding). Better yet, leave your driver’s license. That way, the dealer knows you will return.

Now, you have what you think is a remarkable daguerreotype, for much less than you would actually pay and the dealer allows you to take it to better light. Your hands are shaking, cotton fluff is drying your mouth and your stomach is churning. Take a deep breath and think rationally. Were many of that dealer’s prices lower than you expected? If so, why? It is up to you to really examine the plate with a critical eye, turning it at different angles to check for damage. Normally, when the plates were polished, the buff strokes (if they are apparent) would have been made horizontally across a vertical portrait. Don’t mistake them for scratches. Assuming that the glass is covered with debris, I will give you a very important observation. As you rotate the piece, any spots or dots that either move over the surface as shadows or that are doubled, because they are reflected in the silver, are always going to be on the underside of the glass and not on the surface. If you stop here for a moment and read the article on condition, you will have keys to other problems that you might find.

Never take a daguerreotype out of its case without the dealer’s permission. There are several methods to use. If the image is in a half case with no attached cover, gently tapping the edge of the case against the palm of your hand is a preferred method, unless you hear the mat, glass and plate rattle. Stop instantly because that indicates that the plate is unsealed and you might create mat abrasions. Even with all my experience I very rarely remove a daguerreotype from a case if it is unsealed or a very tight fit until after I have made the purchase. If you have a whole case, NEVER tap the image compartment on your hand. Remember, the weakest component of the entire package is the hinges, both on leather cases and thermoplastic examples. I use the thin blade in a Swiss Army knife and very carefully pry the image out of the compartment. You must realize that if you break the case or damage the image in any way, you should instantly be prepared to make the purchase. The best idea is to have the dealer remove the plate, if it is a necessary requirement before you feel comfortable. If that option is refused, then you have to make a decision from what you have seen. You might see people using suction cups to remove images from cases. I am totally against that method!!! If there aren’t any seals, the glass pops off while the mat and plate rattle around, creating mat scratches. If a person uses too much force and causes the glass and plate to touch (especially prevalent on larger pieces) then the top layer of the amalgam is squashed and an irreparable discoloration is permanently created at that point. Beware of any dealer who carelessly removes images from cases. It might indicate a disregard for creating problems to the plate. Remember, you are handling historically important antiques and they should be treated with respect, even if the subject is a wizened old man and the price is $50.

Don’t be disappointed that an interesting portrait or scene has tarnish or oxidation inside the mat. I usually concur that it means the plate was never cleaned or it was done previously and has still aged gracefully. Sometimes though, people can cleverly clean the surface and leave tarnish. I will attempt to scan an image that I cleaned and post it below. I always write notations on the archival seals, initial them and date when the work was completed. If a daguerreotype doesn’t have any patina what-so-ever, it usually indicates that the surface was cleaned. Rarely have I examined a plate that was originally sealed that didn’t have any oxidation.

Brown spots on the surface can be a naturally occurring phenomenon or the result of a prior cleaning. I don’t feel that they should eliminate a wonderful likeness from consideration for being purchased (depending how many and where they are located on the silvered plane). But remember, you should always think ahead and ask yourself, “although some of these faults might disappear with new glass or improve after a soaking in distilled water, will I still want to keep the daguerreotype if nothing changes?”

If you have any legitimate questions, most dealers will take the time to help you decide on making a purchase. I usually suggest other pieces that resemble the “style and subject” of the daguerreotype that a person is considering, so they have a comparison. If you have decided to make the purchase, it is expected that you will ask for a discount. If one is given, 10% to 15% off the listed price is reasonable. I don’t usually give discounts for one plate. If more than one is being considered, I am more likely to bargain. Since the prices in my catalogue, “The Daguerreian Forum” and those on this website are fixed, I have always taken a great deal of pride in my ability to put fair retail prices on my daguerreotypes. (I have never been accused of under pricing items).

When buyers first enter shows (and it happens to all of us) we are most vulnerable to make mistakes, purchasing images that look great (before someone else scoops them up) without taking time to thoroughly inspect them. I have believed for a long time, if I am meant to own a daguerreotype, it will be there when I decide to buy it. Admittedly, I have missed some great pieces because I hesitated, but rarely have I regretted any daguerreotype that I bought.

One problem I have with some dealers is their unwillingness to put prices on daguerreotypes at shows, so that everyone has the opportunity to bargain from the same beginning point.

Whether you buy daguerreotypes in person, from a catalogue, or electronically, it is very important to establish relationships with dealers you get to know; who continually have interesting merchandise and who are willing to spend time educating you. I have always known that my best clients are the people who are willing to spend the extra time it requires to acquire the most knowledge. As your information banks expand, so does your self-assurance and confidence. Simultaneously, if you study many daguerreotypes, even those on the web or in books and ask yourself what are their strengths and weaknesses, then your eye will be trained to instantly spot a “keeper”. After you reach a certain plateau, my favorite axiom becomes the rule; “if you love a plate enough to own it and you can afford it, then just buy it.” At that point, your thought process will have already concluded that it had the three most important aspects; fine (technical) quality, wonderful content, and great condition! Naturally, plate size, the maker’s identity, the sitter’s identity, beautiful hand coloring and price are all extra considerations. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Happy hunting!