It was definitely a Gustave Le Gray day at Sotheby's in London. When the auctioneer's gavel banged down on Oct. 27 last year to end the bidding, one of Le Gray's historic 1855 photographs - of a Mediterranean Sea wave - sold for a staggering $837,400.
An unknown collector had paid the highest price ever for a vintage 19th-century photograph by one of photography's inventors.
Mouths momentarily fell open throughout the close-knit world of high-end photograph collectors. Not only was the bidder's identity a secret, but curators and collectors alike wondered if photo collecting of stellar photos, particularly 19th-century photos, could be poised to bring prices similar to those of some oil paintings.
"It was a strange situation being there," says Douglas Nickel, assistant curator of photography at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. "Everybody who participates in the field was in the same room, yet all the photos were going to someone who wasn't there."
Mr. Nickel and some other experts have concluded that the bidder may have been someone relatively unknowledgeable about photography history, perhaps a well-heeled speculator.
"Whoever it was not only bid up really good lots like Le Gray's seascape," says Nickel, "but undistinguished lots, too."
Whatever the background of the bidder, the record purchase signals that the burgeoning popularity of collecting photographs has probably not peaked. Such high-priced commitment is not an anomaly.
At another recent Sotheby auction, in New York, a San Francisco dealer paid a record $607,500 for a 1927 Charles Sheeler photo of an industrial scene at the Ford Rogue River plant in Detroit. It's one of only four known prints.
"People who have been in the market for years," says Denise Bethel, head of Sotheby's photograph department in New York, "are having to spend more and more money. It's the rarity factor. When we started this in the '70s, we didn't know how rare these photos were. Now it's beginning to dawn on us."
Rarity has been partially established by collectors seeking vintage prints, or prints developed by the photographer's own hand or under his or her supervision. By this measure, the choice prints are distinguished from the flood of later reproductions.
Since collecting emerged from obscurity beginning in the early '70s, collectors have favored 20th-century photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Alfred Steiglitz, Dorthea Lange, or Charles Sheeler.
And as scholarship and research increased about these esteemed photographers, collectors' enthusiasm rose, too. Inevitably prices have risen to the point that well-known images of an Ansel Adams or Edward Weston sell today for $20,000 to $40,000 or more. Less-famous or less-compelling photos by 20th-century masters are still relatively inexpensive.
Ron and Kathy Perisho of San Ramon, Calif., have been collecting mostly landscape photos since 1986. "I recently bought a beautiful Edward Weston photo of an evergreen tree stump at auction for $8,500," he says, "and some other photos for around $2,000 each."
Photos from the 19th century - with less-familiar images, but more historical significance - have begun to look a little more enticing to collectors. The overall growth in collecting stems largely from the accessibility of photos in this century. Photos are part of everyday life in advertising, family albums, movies, the Internet, and billboards. So are inexpensive cameras.
Mr. Perisho, with a collection of 1,000 photos, says, "The more you know about the field, the more exciting it becomes." His advice to new collectors is, "Buy only what you love."
More new collectors also reflect a thriving economy. "Photography is a medium easy to get into compared to Old Masters' paintings," curator Nickel says, "because prices are so low."
"Photography is also a medium that most people have had some experience with, not like painting or cabinetmaking," says Jeff Rosenheim, assistant curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "For emerging collectors, it is an easy way to get their feet wet."
Hans Kraus, a well-known New York dealer in 19th-century photographs, sees collecting very much in a growth pattern in terms of the number of collectors, but does not expect a dramatic increase in prices.
"It will take a period of time for the impact [of the record sale] to settle in," he says. "I'm not anticipating any major effect on the market, but if I had a Le Gray seascape, I would have to consider charging more for it. In a way, 19th-century [photography] has been a bit of a backwater and takes understanding and patience that the rest of the market does not require."
Collectors tend to specialize across the range of possibilities from techniques to processes, and subject matter from fashion photography to American Indians.
Daguerreotypes, invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, are images recorded on a highly polished, silver-coated copper plate requiring the subject to sit still for a minute or longer. A recent sale of a collection of exquisitely preserved large-format daguerreotypes by Southworth & Hawes, a Boston-based photography partnership from the 1840s, brought another record price. The collection, found in the basement of a home in Marblehead, Mass., included the image of two women in black, which sold at auction for $387,500.
Carte-de-vistes (albumen prints on small, stiff cards) were part of the tremendous growth of photography from 1860 into the 1880s. A set of six photos, one of each of the six members of the Jesse James gang, taken after a failed bank robbery in Minnesota in 1876, recently sold at an auction for $39,100.
Even everyday snapshots, or "vernacular" photos, are being collected and shown in exhibitions. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art offered an exhibition in 1998 called "Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life." Photos included beach scenes, pets, and children's birthday parties.
Is this stuff of point-and-shoot worth collecting, let alone gathering into an exhibition? "The museum's role is not to just talk about art as a commodity," Nickel says, "but [to be] a place where the visual culture can be discussed and analyzed so that something of low value, like snapshots, can be the subject of intellectual investigation."
Enthusiasm and intellectual appreciation among collectors can easily turn to passion. Merrily Page and her husband, Tony, have been collecting fine photographs in San Francisco for 30 years. Their collection ranges from works by William Henry Fox Talbot (inventor of the calotype process in 1839) to contemporary photographers who are not yet widely known.
"Our collection specializes in the print as a craft," says Ms. Page, who also owns a matting and framing service for fine photography. "We are not interested in owning a photograph unless the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up when we look at it...."
Collector Perisho, who changes the 80 photos on his walls and office about every eight months or so, has mostly black-and-white photos in a 16-by-20-inch format. As do most serious collectors, he protects his photos with ultraviolet filter glass.
"Over the years, we have developed an expertise," he says, "by doing our homework, by reading, visiting museums, and talking with dealers and curators. What you like helps define your eye and passion, and we like to share what we know with others."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society