British photographic history

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A rare find of an original 1839 daguerreotype

Picture the scenario:
Museum: Curator, back room, dark corner, faded shoebox.
Inside shoebox: paper-wrapped, gold-framed daguerreotype depicting Paris's Pont Neuf spanning the River Seine.
Back of frame: Handwritten with the date '1839' - the dawn of photography.

Phillip Prodger, the first full-time photography curator at the Peabody Essex Museum, knew right away he was onto something special. Now, with the help of a Harvard conservator, he’s working to find out whether the print could have been taken by Louis Daguerre himself. If so, the 4-by-6 1/2-inch image could be worth upwards of $3 million. The picture itself is not signed. On the back of the frame, a label names the shop of Vincent Chevalier, the Paris optician who made Daguerre’s camera lenses. It’s unclear who took the photograph.

In fact, no more than 20 daguerreotypes are known to exist from that year. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has nothing dating to 1839. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has a daguerreotype from 1840.


“It’s quite early, and it’s an outdoor scene in Paris, reportedly in good condition, by someone who is quite well known,’’ said Laura Paterson, a specialist in the photographs department at Christie’s auction house. “All of these things add enormous value. It sounds as if they have a rare find on their hands. It’s of immense historical importance.’’


So how did such a valuable art object end up in a shoebox? To begin with, the museum dates to 1799, meaning an immense amount of jumbled materials came into its possession well before modern collection policies and records were in place. A man named John Burley bought the daguerreotype in 1842 in Paris and later gave it to the museum.


To follow the detective trail with Inspector Clouseau, read the full report here.


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