When we are talking about prints whose "vintage" quality or date is difficult if not impossible to definitively ascertain by empirical means, I wonder how much of a premium there should be on such an image. This is a specific problem with images that were made mid-1950s through to today--some of the most currently popular photographs with today's collectors. Is there meaning to "vintage" or even dating of prints when this becomes impossible to prove scientifically as it is with many prints made after 1955? Should all prints after this date be worth the same for a given image? If not, why not?
This issue was particularly brought home with the steep prices at the Seagram's sale for prints made largely after 1955 (more on that in the next newsletter). Should a collector have to depend on the connoisseurship (or lack thereof) of an auction house or a photo dealer to ascertain dating? Especially in view of recent market scandals on this very issue (Lewis Hine, Man Ray and others) involving some photo dealers (and auction houses), where "vintage" was much more easily determined and was still inaccurately portrayed, however innocently? While some of this "lack of knowledge" has been rectified, especially by AIPAD's fine session on conservation techniques at the Metropolitan, there does not appear to be similar techniques available for prints made after 1955 that work consistently.
Even provenance is not always a perfect solution, with artists themselves and their heirs occasionally being less than accurate with the dating of prints. I can cite at least four such instances that I personally encountered where the photographer or heir inaccurately dated material by substantial margins or marked it "vintage" when it clearly was not. It gets particularly problematic when heirs date unsigned images that are made sometimes after 1955 when brighteners were added to some commercial photography papers. It may then even be impossible to know who exactly made that kind of print--another major problem.
Worse, there are no guarantees in dating photographs at auction. Just read the various auction house catalogues' fine print to see that you are only guaranteed that IMAGES are by the photographers themselves (not even necessarily the prints). This came as a shock to many during the Hine's scandal when prints were determined by scientific methods to have been printed many decades after Hine had died. Today these prints that were sold for tens of thousands of dollars in some cases have little market value (a group of 14 of these prints dated 1973 by Phillips sold at the Seagram's sale for under $800 a piece; which also makes one wonder what might now happen to these prints). At least, as I understand it, the AIPAD photography dealers who sold the Hines that were printed well after Hine's death were giving money or credit back to their clients after the facts surfaced and the prints went for testing. While occasionally auction houses may make allowances for inaccurate catalogue information, they really don't have to do this because of their catalogue exclusions.
As we enter a digital age, these questions will certainly become even more important and may revolutionize how the photography market handles the issue. It is important that the market deal with these issues forthrightly in order to maintain the confidence of collectors and curators. I would appreciate other viewpoints on this issue, and I will be happy to publish them in a subsequent newsletter and/or on-line if fully attributed. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .