In December 2020, David Whitcomb bought a house in Geneva, New York. He intended to use the first two floors of the building for his law offices, and the third floor for apartment space. The top floor needed work, so he and a friend started construction. They noticed floorboards in the ceiling and realized there was an attic. Whitcomb had no idea that the newly purchased house had an attic full of treasure because it wasn’t in the paperwork.
Whitcomb, upon discovering the attic, didn’t think much of the photos and portraits he found. But, one day he decided to explore a bit more and eventually found that the attic was a photography studio used by a photographer named James Ellery Hale. Hale is renowned for shooting portraits of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Smith Miller as well as other suffragettes during the early 1900s. One of the photographs of Susan B. Anthony taken by Hale serves as her official portrait in the US Library of Congress. Hale soon became known as the photographer of the women’s rights movement.
Whitcomb eventually realized who the women were, and amazingly, some of the photos were original prints. Along with the pictures in Hale’s studio were photography equipment, negatives, and outtakes for photoshoots. All these items were certainly valuable vintage and antique collectibles, but need to be cleaned and verified by experts.
Auctioning Studio Treasures
After many months of cleaning and cataloging, all the photos, frames, and equipment from the attic studio were sent to auction. In all, there were over 1,000 pieces valued at $70,000. One particular photo of Susan B. Anthony was the most sought-after and sold for $35,990. This image was a silver bromide photographic print, a commonly used material for photographers in the early 1900s because it was inexpensive. Hale took the photo of Anthony in 1905, the year before her passing. The Susan B. Anthony Memorial Association made this photo its official portrait.
Due to the fact that platinum is exceedingly stable and does not degrade over time, the platinum/palladium method was widely used for practical purposes keeping photos in good condition. However, the platinotype, method, an iron process, uses ferric oxalate in combination with the metal salts of platinum and palladium to create the image, which was used primarily for aesthetic appeal but did not last as long. These prints are printed directly on paper without the use of an emulsion, which results in beautifully rich gray tones and a matte feel making them more engaging.
Hale’s cameras and other equipment were highly sought after along with background props and sold for thousands of dollars at auction. Other unique collectibles from Hale’s studio were a street corner display box selling for over $400 and a print block for the photographer’s advertisement that read, “Hale, The Leading Photographer in Geneva,” selling for almost $600.
Treasures in Your Attic?
Chances are you are not going to find valuable photos of ground-breaking suffragettes valued at thousands of dollars in your attic, but you may find other treasures left by previous owners or vintage and antique pieces handed down through generations by your great, great, great grandmother. And if you think the item may be valuable, bring it to an antique dealer like the OId & New Shop. They will offer a fair market value on a variety of antique and vintage items, including:
- Fine porcelain
- Marble statuary
- Persian rugs
- Mid-century modern furniture
So, get up to that attic and explore-you’ll never know what you might find!