Sotheby’s will auction almost 200 photos by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877), one of the inventors of the medium, in New York next month. The collection, which will be offered as a single lot, is expected to fetch between $300,000 and $500,000.
Featuring both individual prints and photographic albums such as The Pencil of Nature and Sun Pictures in Scotland, the sale offers a glimpse of daily life in the 1840s, with both indoor and outdoor scenes, portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. Collectively, the photographs represent “arguably the most important lot of 19th-century photographs to ever come to market,” according to the auction house.
While Louis Daguerre (1787–1851) was developing daguerreotypes in Paris in the 1830s, Talbot was discovering how to make photographs on paper, which he called calotypes or talbotypes, using a sodium solution to permanently fix images projected inside a camera lucida onto photosensitive paper coated with silver iodide.
The process produced a translucent negative that could be used to copy the image through contact printing, unlike daguerreotypes, which were one-of-a-kind. Talbot made his prints with silver chloride paper, or salted paper, which he developed through his earlier photographic experiments. It was watershed development in photographic history, greatly influencing camera technology moving forward.
“Over the years, these photographs have become harder and harder to find, because they are snapped up and are in private or institutional collections,” Emily Bierman, head of Sotheby’s photography department, told CNN. “To have a full collection… is something you couldn’t even dream up.”
The Sotheby’s collection was a gift from the photographer to his half-sister, Henrietta Horatia Maria Gaisford, and has been in her family ever since. It contains prints of some of Talbot’s best-known works, such as Nelson’s Column under construction and Bust of Patroclus, but other photographs in the set may be the only surviving copy of the image.
The works will hit the block as part of Sotheby’s photo department’s 50th anniversary celebrations, which includes a joint New York and London sale titled “50 Masterworks to Celebrate 50 Years.”
Other sales highlights include a rare lifetime print of Nude by Lee Miller that could fetch up to $300,000, and Robert Frank’s ‘Family U.S. 90’ (En Route to Del Rio), with a high estimate of $600,000.
The record for a Talbot album at auction is $275,000, set in April 2018 at Sotheby’s New York for The Pencil of Nature, according to the Artnet Price Database. Before that, the photographer’s high-water mark stood at £130,000 ($202,681) since May 2000.
See more of the Talbot photographs included in the sale below.
“50 Masterworks to Celebrate 50 Years of Sotheby’s Photographs” will be open for bidding at Sotheby’s New York Sotheby’s London, April 12–22, 2021.
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