By Michael and James Fry, Brown Button Estate Sales
It is a fairly regular occurrence in the estate sale business to be working in the back of an attic or basement and run across a trunk full of old photographs. Whenever this happens, we let the family know what we’ve found and give them the option of either keeping the photographs or selling them through the estate sale. Generally, they’re surprised to find that selling them is an option; surprised that anyone would want to purchase someone’s old photos. We assure them that the customers are most certainly interested, and depending on what’s in the collection, it might be worth quite a bit.
As photography has changed over the years from one technique to another, collectors have emerged and grown in numbers. From daguerreotypes to tintypes, glass plate negatives to the more contemporary polaroid images; each of these processes has a dedicated group of buyers. The full scope of what each of these categories might be worth is too large for us to cover here, so we’re just going to focus on cabinet cards.
Coming on the scene in the early 1860s, cabinet cards replaced the carte de visite (commonly referred to as cdvs) as the photo method of choice. Both methods use essentially the same process but the cabinet cards were more than twice the size of their predecessor. The larger size made them a popular choice as they were easier to see across a room and were often used to decorate inside cabinets, hence the name.
Three distinct qualities make cabinet cards easy to identify. The most obvious is the thick cardstock that the photos are mounted on. Second, the size of the card backing measures right around 4.25in. × 6.5in. And third, most of the time you’ll also find written information and a logo of the photographer.
Cabinet cards have a wide range of potential value based mostly on condition and subject matter, with subject matter being by far the greatest factor in collector interest. Their height of popularity was achieved during the Victorian era and the vast majority of the subjects of these photos were studio-based, simple Victorian portraits. Basic supply and demand then comes into play. A large supply of Victorian simple portraits plus mid-level demand equals low prices. Most of these portrait images will only be worth $2 to $6 each. That might not sound like much, but if you happen to run across a box of 300 of these in a basement (which we have) you’re easily looking at around a thousand dollars of value.
The value of individual images increases when the subject matter gets more interesting. When the photograph contains a subject matter not often photographed in that era, the value can go up dramatically. Pets were less-often photographed and command more interest, but an uncommon animal in the image, such as a buffalo, monkey, or tiger, can push the value to $50 or more. Portraits of sports figures, such as baseball players or boxers have very high interest and can be worth more than $100 per image.
Another group of higher-value cabinet cards are those with Native Americans on them. Several years ago we were holding a sale in Leawood and came across a cabinet card that had five Native Americans in the image with a caucasian man. We had a lot of interest in the photo and sold it the first day of the sale for $140. The prices can go over $1,000 if the Native Americans pictured were famous chiefs, such as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Chief Joseph, or Geronimo. In general, famous historical figures are some of the most sought after in cabinet card collecting. Previous presidents such as Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Abraham Lincoln are at the top of many collector’s lists, followed by other A-list celebrities of the time like Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody, Sojourner Truth, P.T. Barnum, and Jesse James. An authentic cabinet card of one of those individuals will sell between several hundred to several thousand dollars.
So before you throw out that musty box full of photos of unknown ancestors in the attic, take a few minutes to assess what you have and what it might be worth to a cabinet card collector. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, well, sometimes it’s worth a thousand dollars, too.