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There is a back story to this item. The daguerreotype had been taken into Tennants, a large regional auction house in the north of England, for valuation and authentication. The auction house, properly recognising the daguerreotype’s potential wider interest and possible high value, did some research and made contact with one of the UK’s leading Carroll experts who consulted a second. Both pronounced the subject of the daguerreotype as someone other than Carroll. They made four key points: firstly, Claudet’s Adelaide Gallery was only operating between 1841 and 1847, secondly, by 1858 the daguerreotype process in Britain had been largely superseded by the wet collodion process in commercial photographic studios such as Claudets, and, thirdly, Carroll was a diligent and noted diarist and made no mention of a visit to Claudet’s studio, and finally, the gentlemen shown in the daguerreotype was not Dodgson which was immediately apparent to the experts - as a simple comparison with other known portraits (including a well-known 1857 portrait - see right, below) of Dodgson would reveal. The auction house rightly decided that they were not able to offer the daguerreotype at auction and it was returned to the owner.
It resurfaced on eBay on 3 March 2011 offered by virtually-cameras. As has now been confirmed to me by someone with direct knowledge of the daguerreotype and the authentication (not the expert) the eBay seller was the same person who took it to the auction house for authentication. But Peter described the daguerreotype only as he saw it, albeit misspelling Dodgson as Dodson, Claudet as Claude and Adelaide as Adelade, and quoting the typewritten label in full. He was careful to say only that the daguerreotype was ‘labelled’ and he made no reference to Lewis Carroll. Peter made no mention of the fact that the daguerreotype had been examined by an expert who had discounted any possibility that it showed Dodgson. On 5 May Peter corrected the Claudet misspelling and added some biographical details about Claudet, presumably found on the internet.
As one might imagine an image of Carroll would attract considerable interest and the description contained plenty in it to allow it to be picked up by buyers’ search terms. Almost as soon as the lot was listed ‘Matthew’ asked Peter if he could buy it straight away for £300. Peter, quite properly declined. Ending an auction early to sell it would breach eBay’s terms of business. But Peter was also expressed surprised by the reaction the lot was attracting and said he wanted to let the auction run its course. A couple of further questions followed which he answered including confirmation of the size: ‘the frame size is 7.5 x 8.5 cm. The visible image is 6 x 5.5 cm’.
I was tipped off about the lot by a friend on 12 March. Looking at the description and image something didn’t ring true and I did some checking. I compared the image with others properly identified as Dodgson and I checked material I had on Claudet which confirmed his business addresses. I also knew that by 1857 it was more likely that the image should be a collodion positive or ambrotype. I emailed Peter via eBay asking one question: ‘what did he know about the provenance of the image?’ pointing out that the label might allow people to make a link to Carroll which could be unfortunate. Peter responded promptly not really answering my question: ‘I'm sure you will realise after giving some serious thought that it's certainly not possible that I could know how the typed label was placed with the photograph,when the typed label clearly appears to be as old as the photograph! Perhaps you are unaware that a Daguerreotype is a negative image unlike the positive images with which you are making comparison.’
In the meantime I did some research on typewriter history and I concluded that the label was post-1870 and probably c1890-1910. I responded to Peter saying that the provenance would have been useful as ‘I was hoping that the image might have come from a source that would have supported the identification of the subject’. I pointed out that the typewritten label was almost certainly post 1870. Peter again replied promptly: ‘The image was purchased some time ago along with another of a girl, an ambrotype, after being sold at auction in Darlington County Durham’. He also asserted that typewriters dated back to the ‘late 1700s’ and that daguerreotypes ‘show a positive image when tilted against the light however the sitters image is reversed onto backing silvered material during exposure making it a true negative image and only by changing the angle of lighting does the Daguerreotype give the impression of being a positive’. Peter decided not to publish my questions and his responses alongside the description (eBay automates this if it is wanted) – unlike those of his other questioners. I decided to leave it at that.
As I stated at the beginning the daguerreotype sold for £3300.
I think there are a couple of lessons here. For the seller, some simple research should have thrown up some concerns about the image's subject. Peter has been on eBay since 2008. Looking at his past sales he appears to mainly sell modern photographic equipment on eBay, for which he has received good feedback, so the daguerreotype was clearly out of his main area of expertise. Some simple checking would have flagged up that the image was unlikely to be Carroll. He was clearly surprised at the interest the lot was generating and this might have acted as a warning. Since originally writing the piece I have been advised by someone who had discussed the matter with Peter was Peter had been the person who took the daguerreotype to the auction house. As such he clearly had a duty to flag the opinion that the experts had raised in his eBay description.
Buyers also have a responsibility – caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). Peter carefully made no link to Dodgson and simply described the daguerreotype as he saw it - allowing buyers to draw their own conclusions. It might be possible that two buyers liked a possible Claudet daguerreotype and were prepared to pay well over the normal price for such an image. That is unlikely. What is more likely is that bidders thought that they were about to get a bargain which they could resell at a profit; or they bid having jumped to their own conclusion that the subject was Carroll and failed to carry out any further research. It would not have been difficult to do and for the eventual buyer it might have prevented an expensive mistake.
A cautionary tale, indeed.
Dr Michael Pritchard
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