Grainy 1843 image of America’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams was expected to fetch up to $250,000 at auction after it was discovered by descendant of Vermont representative.
The photo has even had Emily Bierman, head of the auction house’s photographs department, call it ‘without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.’
She added: ‘Not only is it an incredibly important historical record, it’s also a stunning composition. You really get a sense of who Adams was.’
Taken in a Washington portrait studio, Adams was in the middle of his post-presidential Congress run at the time. It was given as a gift to a fellow representative whose family held onto but never checked the actual significance.
While the daguerreotype – a ‘plate’ about five by four inches – is the oldest known photo of a United States President, it is not the earliest photographic image of an American president.
The 9th President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, had a photo taken of him in 1841, around the time of his inauguration.
Unfortunately, he died 32 days into his term due to an illness and the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of the photo, made by the Boston firm Southworth and Hawes around 1850.
It was given as a gift to a fellow representative whose family held onto but never checked the actual significance +6
Adams was first photographed by Boston photographer John Plumbe Jr in 1842, though that image too has been lost.
The photo offers another glimpse into the complicated man that was Adams and featured his signature gaze, strong jaw and rigid form.
But that image too appears to be a reproduction by Southworth and Hawes from one that too was lost.
‘I keep getting caught on his cute socks,’ Ms. Bierman said, noting the pair peeking out of his trouser cuffs.
‘There is something so human about that.’
Adams was captivated by the new medium of photography. In his diary on March 8, 1843, he wrote of his first visit with Philip Haas in DC, where he sat with for three daguerreotypes.
‘The operation is performed in half a minute; but is yet altogether incomprehensible to me,’ Adams wrote.
‘It would seem as easy to stamp a fixed portrait from the reflection of a mirror; but how wonderful would that reflection itself be, if we were not familiarized to it from childhood.’
He would return a week later for three more and would gift one to his friend, Vermont congressman Horace Everett.
On the new image, a wood frame, the clear personal connection is evident. There is a piece of brown paper, seemingly clipped from an envelope, with ‘J.Q. Adams’ in the return address space.
Adams was first photographed by Boston photographer John Plumbe Jr in 1842, though that image too has been lost
It appears to be in his handwriting.
‘He had a distinctive way of making his H’s,’ Ms. Bierman said.
It was found by Everett’s great-great-grandson, who chose not to be named to keep his family’s privacy. He found it in his parent’s belongings after they died in the 1990s.
He assumed that it was an image of his forebear, and recently found out it was the president.
The plate could always go for more than suggested.
A whole-plate daguerreotype of former vice president John C Calhoun went for $338,500, including the buyer’s premium — roughly nine times its estimate.
Ms. Bierman hopes that people will look more closely at the photos in their possession because the results of what may come up are endless.
‘So much is considered lost until it’s found,’ she said.
Results of the Auction: America’s oldest portrait of a president sells high at Sotheby’s
Written by Matthew Wright and published by The Daily Mail ~ August 19, 2017.
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