The Insider'S Guide To Buying Photographs

by Alex Novak


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Besides historical and aesthetic considerations, most photography collectors ultimately will face the real economic issue of both buying and selling images.

Few of us merely inherit a collection and then pass it on. These articles then are primers on the mechanics of buying and selling. They are not primers on the aesthetics or connoisseurship of collecting. We will add those soon.

Buying is the easier decision to make–either the price for an image is right for a collector or it is not. What’s to think about? Right?


The Sources to Buy from

As we review the sources to buy from, you may find that not all of them are exactly equal at all times. Each has pros and cons.

In the Photography Market an image can usually be bought from one of about six groups:

  • Auction Houses/On-Line Auctions/Charitable Auctions
  • Photography Dealers (Both Private and Gallery)
  • Other Collectors or Private Owners
  • Charitable Organizations with Print Programs
  • Other Dealers, such as Antique or Book Dealers
  • Photographers Themselves

Just a quick note: generally, museums, estates and other similar entities must, for a variety of reasons, depend on third-party sellers such as auction houses and dealers to actually handle images that they might have for sale. They are rarely a direct source for a collector.

Traditional Auctions

Let’s look first at auction houses and the modern equivalent, the on-line auction.

Typical crowded auction room at Drouot in Paris.
Typical crowded auction room at Drouot in Paris.

Traditional auction houses offer large amounts of photography nicely packaged and all in one place for easy viewing, often with a handy catalogue for reference. They are a great place to see and actually handle (at least in Europe) a wide variety of pieces. There is also the excitement of participating in an auction. Often rare and important images and collections will only appear at auction. In an ideal world, auction items may be "vetted" by experts, providing some security.

Auctions, while they can be a fun way to get a bargain, can also be an expensive way to get a lesson. Make sure that you make yourself aware of all the "rules" before you play.

The larger auction houses have very extensive contract language in their catalogues and even refer you to "rate cards" outside of the catalogues for further details such as buyers’ premium information. Most collectors rarely read this information, but definitely should. In essence the auction house's contract language contends that the auction house is not responsible for any condition problems and even has a limited liability for outright fraudulent items. In the US, fraudulent items must be returned within five years. The auction house can also force you to prove your case by hiring two different recognized experts that are "mutually acceptable" at your cost before they have to accept the return of the item. In France, you may not even have any legal rights, even if the item is an outright fraud. At least one French court has held that it is the buyer's responsibility to determine the validity of the descriptions of the auction house.

Most auction houses only guarantee authorship. Nothing else: not dates, not condition, not completeness. The language in the catalogues of the big two houses expressly exclude backing their own condition reports and catalogue listings, except for the words in boldface, which are usually only the photographers' names. That comes as a surprise to most collectors who often assume that a condition report from the auction house means that the auction house guarantees that this will indeed be the condition that you receive on the lot and that if they say a print is vintage, it is indeed vintage, and, if not, that you can return it. The Lewis Hines affair seems to have made the auction houses even more gun-shy about this issue. Both houses have reportedly resorted to referring to their catalogue language and apparently will not return money on "bad" Hines if they were purchased over five years ago. If this incident were to occur today, neither house indicates it would return the money to their customers.

I have seen even respected old auction houses sell images that were nearly torn through, badly foxed, scratched, restored extensively, miscatalogued, printed later than indicated in the catalogue (a very common problem), missing pages or images from portfolios or books, etc. This does not include the many just poor quality prints that flow through the auctions.

If you think you can always get an accurate idea of an image from the catalogue illustration or even by calling the auction house for a condition report, you will be sorely mistaken.

Let me relate my own experience. In about 1980, I decided to take the plunge into the auction world. Even then I did not feel comfortable with just the catalogue description and picture to go by, so I called the auction house's expert and asked for a condition report on an important Julia Margaret Cameron image. He described it in glowing terms, noting the print condition was "excellent with great tones." I bid accordingly and won. When I received the print, I was appalled. The print had over two-thirds of its albumen surface scratched off and watercolor was badly applied to cover up this destruction. By the way, it looked perfect in the catalogue. After several phone calls, the embarrassed expert took the image back, albeit very reluctantly. The house's acceptance of a returned lot, I have come to learn, is a very rare event that one should never count on.

After I talked to other more experienced collectors and dealers, I found out that this situation was very common indeed, and that I was very fortunate to have had the auction house take the image back. Some collectors and dealers were using the auctions as a "dumping grounds" for poorer quality images. While this situation still persists today, larger US photography auction houses have gotten more experienced and tougher with their standards. However, I have recently seen scratches on daguerreotypes that did not show in the catalogues; poor repairs to cracks across a Man Ray, which was said to be vintage and wasn't; a badly torn vintage Lartigue, which later went up on the auction house's new on-line site with no note of the tear in the catalogue or on the web site; a Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother that was originally billed as "vintage" in the catalogue that was announced as a ‘50s print just prior to the auction (although most thought it to be a ‘60s print), and two hard images that–at least according to two top experts–were not what they were purported to be. All of these problems occurred at major photography auctions over the last few years.

Typical French auction.  Note the way the man is holding up the photograph by Le Gray.
Typical French auction. Note the way the man is holding up the photograph by Le Gray.

Then you should also factor in normal "wear and tear" from handling at auction by those viewing the pieces, something that can destroy the value on some images and occurs frequently in London and European venues, less so in major photography auctions in the US, although it does happen. I’ve even seen some of the handlers in Paris drop pieces, hold them directly in dirty hands, or even bend or break them.

As long-time photo dealer Janet Lehr told me for another article, "That's the great success of an auction. It drags you into things that in the light of day you wouldn't be interested in at all." Lehr feels that "auctions are for very savvy dealers or for collectors who are willing to make big mistakes."

How to Protect Yourself at Auction

So what is a collector or curator to do when they see an image in an auction catalogue that they covet for their collection?

First, read the catalogue and any additional rate cards for all conditions of sale and costs.

Second, view any images in person carefully. Have the auction house take the item out of the frame or mat, etc. for you to examine closely from the back and front. Look carefully for spotting, foxing, scratches, marks of restoration or tears, etc. You may still want the item, but at least you get a better idea of its true value, especially if you will need to have some further restoration done afterwards. If appropriate, have the auction house black light the item, preferably in your presence. A black light is just what it sounds like, one of those holdover fluorescent lamps from the 1960s psychedelic parties for those of you old enough to remember or those of you into ‘60s retro. If the print glows on the front in the emulsion, it was probably printed after 1951 through 1956 due to brighteners that were added to some photography emulsions at that time. If the back glows as well, the print was probably made after 1955-1956. If there are spots or smudges of glowing areas, the image, which may be vintage, was probably restored/treated in some way. Look for evidence of that treatment (tears, etc.). In Paris and other European venues, it is doubtful you will be able to get the house to black light the image. Bid as if the item is not a vintage print if there is any question.

A few dealers carry hand-held black lights, but I have never seen anyone use them at the auctions themselves, which is difficult to do under normal lighting conditions in any case. Recently I challenged a major London auction house over a dozen prints that were misdated because they glowed when I examined them under blacklight. The auction expert challenged his department head about it. She said she had indeed blacklighted the pieces. She then took out one of the little hand blacklights with weak batteries and showed how she blacklighted them in daylight! I then took them both back into a blackened room with a "real" blacklight and showed them how the dozen lit up like a neon sign. By the way, no announcement was made before or during the auction about these prints and several were sold in six figures. One dealer, who had also warned the house about some of the prints for other reasons, called their actions fraudulent.

Also remember that if a print does not glow, it does not mean it is a vintage print automatically. Many current papers do not contain optical brighteners. Other tests may be made on a paper to determine when the paper, not the print, was made. If in doubt, talk to your conservator.

If you cannot actually see the print in person, have a dealer or experienced appraiser (in photography, that is) view the print for you. They can also help you evaluate the item and bid for you.

Most dealers/appraisers offer such services to clients. Typically, there is a set fee as a minimum against a percentage of a successful bid's hammer price. This percentage is usually between 5-10%, but also expect to pay a minimum fee, plus phone expenses, if you are not successful on your bid or choose not to bid after receiving a condition report and consultation. This fee varies. For regular clients spending six figures on an annual basis with a dealer, other provisions are often made.

Experienced collectors and curators (and even dealers) know that such fees are a small investment to pay against the very expensive lesson of buying a worthless (or at least worth less) photograph and not being able to return it. If you have ever spent any time reviewing in Europe, you also know that conditions can be dirty, musty, crowded, stifling hot or freezing cold, and that dealers earn every last dollar on a fee of this kind.

At the very least, have the auction house fax or email you a written condition report. It probably does not give you any additional legal rights, but it may give you more leverage later if you have to negotiate. Many of the auction houses have been doing a much better job recently. As at least two have recently told me, "After reading your criticisms in the newsletters of auction condition reports, we’ve been trying to do a much more detailed and accurate report." While this is indeed the case and I am happy that the houses are starting to pay more attention to this important area, you can still encounter problems as I have noted above. Auction houses still do not black light unless asked or unless the print is clearly the "wrong" vintage (and sometimes not even then); prior restoration work is often very hard to detect; and people just make honest, human mistakes, especially when trying to catalog hundreds of items in a very short period. Let me make it clear: it is not that the auction personnel do not care or try to be misleading. Quite the contrary: most are really good people making an honest effort under trying circumstances. They are not the problem. Unfortunately the auction house’s top management has tried to absolve itself of any liability in case of problems, leaving bidders (their customers) with those problems.

Read the catalogue notations carefully. If it is in another language, be very careful translating. Many 20th century prints sold in Europe are "printed later", but be sure you understand the terminology. Many such auction houses do not always understand the difference between vintage and non-vintage prints. Auction "experts" also vary greatly in their "expertise" and the areas of photography that they are knowledgeable.

If you are bidding by phone, ask if there were any pre-auction announcements relative to the lot that you are bidding on. Most auctions will make these announcements at the start of the sale. In most cases, these announcements downgrade an image in some fashion. Vintage prints become "printed later", platinum prints become matte silver gelatins, "signatures" become "notation by unknown third party", etc. If you are bidding prior to the auction by phone, fax or mail, you would have no way of knowing about these changes until too late (if ever), and you would be simply out of luck.

Overbidding at Auction

Another major factor to consider when bidding at auction is overbidding–something that happens to the best of us. Overbidding occurs because the bidder:

  • Gets caught up in the excitement.
  • Gets into an ego battle of wills with another bidder.
  • Forgets to factor in the buyer’s premium (now as high as 25% of the hammer price at some auctions), shipping and/or sales tax.
  • Does not do his or her homework and fails to properly research the current value of the work.

Let us take the first two items first. There is an easy way to deal with these: have the house bid for you even if you decide to be in the room during the bidding. You always have the option of overbidding your "house" bids, but then you may be more aware of going over your own set evaluations. Many dealers, as well as collectors, have also made use of this approach for anonymity, in addition to eliminating the problems of getting caught up in the action or the egos.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have hiked their buyer’s premiums. If you do not factor in these increases in your bids, you will be paying as much as 5-10% more than previous years. This goes for London, New York and soon Paris. Of course, if you do not factor buyer’s premiums at all, you will be paying on average 15-25% more than you expected when you bid. Review the auction catalogue carefully (or, in the case, of Sotheby’s, the separate rate card) for details on the buyer’s premium and remember to factor it in on all your bids.

Finally, do not buy something at auction that is selling "down the street" for less money. If the image is truly unique, it is one thing to bid high, but it is foolishness to pay more at auction than you can buy the image for from a dealer in a gallery or on the web. It happens all the time. Collectors and museums have often bid double, triple, and even over ten times the price of an item that is available from a dealer who might be a quick taxi ride away.

You can check out prices several ways.

  1. If you have it, use the back of the AIPAD catalogue, which has a list of photographers and the AIPAD dealers who represent them. While the list is certainly not comprehensive, it is a good place to start. Once you locate one or two dealers who have some of the photographer’s work, you can call and get an idea of the real value. You will at least determine what the "retail" value of possibly comparable work is.
  2. Review past auction prices. You can do this with several products, but the best are Gordon’s Photographic Price Annual International in on-line database, CD-Rom and book formats,'s on-line price search (which offers both package and flat rate searches), The Photographic Art Market: Auction Prices book, and the ADEC Art Price Annual in CD-Rom and book formats.
  3. Use the services of an experienced photography dealer or appraiser to give you a condition report and an evaluation of the current value of a piece in today’s market.

The auction estimates are often very high or very low. The estimates may be high because the consignor may insist on such a high estimate, or the auction house itself may overestimate the value.

Often estimated ranges are very low. I have seen many important images fetch more than ten times the high estimate. This can occur for a number of reasons.

  1. The item itself is below average for this image or type of image, or the image is not as important as others by this photographer. There may be condition or other problems with the item.
  2. The consignor wants to make absolutely sure that the item sells instead of being bought in.
  3. The auction house simply makes an error in judgment (something rather easy to do on rare and unique lots, or on items with fast-changing market values).
  4. The auction house low balls the estimation/s in order to build up interest and excitement on an item, items or sale.

Whatever the reasons, the estimation is often a terrible guide for making a bid. You should forget estimates completely and evaluate the item yourself or with expert help. Then, and only then, can you bid with some degree of success.

OK, You Won: Now What?

Once you are successful on your bid or bids, the auction house expects you to pay your bill and pick up (or arrange shipping for) your item/s immediately. In fact, you may be charged interest on your purchase after 30 days with most photography auction houses.

While many photography auction houses allow you to charge your purchase, a number of key ones do not currently take credit cards. Sotheby's New York, Swann, Bloomsbury and Phillips New York do not currently take any credit cards. Christie's New York now does take credit cards but limits your charges to $50,000 and you must be there in person to charge your purchase. London’s Sotheby’s and Christie’s charge you a 1-1/2% fee and limit your charges for credit cards. You also have to be there in person to use your credit card, or the amount charged may be limited.

The French auction houses vary greatly as to whether and what cards they accept. For instance, both Pescheteau-Badin and Beaussant do not currently take credit cards, so you must wire money to them in Euros. Most of the others do, but some only take Master Card or Visa and some just take AMEX. All will also take wires sent in Euros. Besides your bank, there are several services, such as Tempus, Travelex (former Ruesch International) and American Express International Payments, that will take your dollars, exchange them for Euros (or pounds sterling, etc.) and wire the money (or prepare a draft). I have found that most banks charge about $35-$50 for international wires (only if you set up this facility in advance, much more if you don't) and give very bad exchange rates. They may tell you that they do not have a commission charge, but that doesn't mean that their exchange rates will be reasonable. Other third-party services often charge reduced or no wire charge and give exchange rates that are closer to interbank rates. Several internet sites will show current interbank rates including You should also look to see if currency rates are going up or down. A few days either way can make thousands of dollars difference in some instances. None of the French houses will take checks in other currencies, such as American dollars, except to guarantee payment in Euros.

German, Austrian, Scandinavian and Dutch auctions vary from house to house, so be sure to read the catalogues carefully or call and confirm the information.

With Sotheby’s or Christie’s U.S. operations, you will probably have to pay the New York City sales tax (currently 8-7/8%) if you pick up the item in person, or pay your own state’s sales tax if you have the item shipped to you. Both houses have operations in most states and therefore have to collect your state’s sales tax even when shipping to you. Of course, if you are a photo dealer with the proper sales tax resale number or a non-profit institution, you do not pay sales tax except on your personal purchases. The IRS may actually look to see if you have avoided sales tax to see if you are really a collector entitled to capital gains treatment and charitable deductions. In other words, be cautious here and pay the tax.

In Europe VAT (Value-Added Tax) and Droit de Suite (as of January 2006) charges may also apply to your purchase (Christie's Paris has controversially applied some of the Droit de Suite to buyers). Non-EEC (non-European) citizens may be able to get some of the VAT tax back from their purchases under the right circumstances. You should check with the shipping departments and/or the photography experts to find out if this is worth pursuing on your specific purchases. It is not automatic and it does not apply to any purchases that do not clear customs properly. The Droit de Suite is a "commission" (roughly 4%, but it varies slightly by the price of the item you bought) paid ostensively to the artist, which actually is collected first by the auction house or dealer and then by a state-run bureaucracy. It currently applies only to living artists, but I recently had one house that tried to bill me on a 19th-century artist!

When you bid in "foreign" auctions, you often have to deal with licensing and customs regulations to export the item.

In England, any photograph with a hammer price of 6,000 pounds sterling or more or with manuscript writing (such as letters, lengthy notes, etc.) requires a license. Sotheby’s has (largely due to a former licensing bureaucrat who headed up their U.S. shipping area, but who has mercifully since left) interpreted the latter part of this regulation to mean that any photography with writing of any kind even a signature or brief notation needs a license before release.

Fortunately, both Christie’s shipping department and I do not agree with Sotheby’s overly strict reading of the regulation. You can still expect to be subject to it at Sotheby’s, although after arguing about it recently with their shipping department, I was able to get them to reconsider their decisions on most of my items.

Likewise in France, any photograph (or even a lot with multiple photographs) with a hammer price of over 15,000 euros or more requires a specific passport number before release and licensing.

The licensing process usually takes from one to three months (the auction house shipping departments will often tell you a few weeks; don’t believe them), although I had one item that took nearly six months of protracted negotiations with the British Library. The reviewing institution can throw the process to a committee if you don’t agree with them. This is a process that can add up to a year to your wait.

While the auction houses and their shippers (or in France, the experts themselves are the best bet) will assist you in this process, they won’t be able to speed it up for you.

The licensing process allows a nation’s institutions to review the item and determine if the image should remain in the country. It is very rare that an item is not granted a license eventually, but it does happen on occasion. The institution involved must then completely reimburse you for the cost of the item (the auction or your purchase price), but not the value to you.

Another process, often used in France, is the preemption. After an item is won in auction, any French non-profit or public institution can declare "preemption", which allows them to buy the item at the winning bidder’s price. As the former winning bidder, you have been "preempted" by the institution, which takes over your bid. In the UK institutions do not have this option. They may, however, block the item from being exported and then raise funds to buy the item at the auctioned price–at least in theory. It rarely happens, but it has in a few instances of national importance.

On some rare occasions, French institutions may seek to have an item declared a national treasure. This process stops the item from being licensed and exported, broken up, or even being resold if the sale takes the item out of the country. It buys time for an institution to match the price paid on the item. It also chills the bidding competition on an item artificially lowering the price if an item is known to be under consideration for this status, as was an important Victor Hugo album recently in France. Some French courts have allowed consignors additional compensation from the government in some lawsuits over this process.

Finally, a word or two on shipping: This is often an expensive process and should be factored into your bids. I have bid on items that cost a third or less of what the shipping charges wound up costing. Glass is extremely heavy and requires extensive and heavy packing and is one of the worst offenders for running up shipping bills. Where possible, have the item unframed, and throw away the frame. If your passion is glass stereos, then you are out of luck. Books, unless rare and expensive, are usually not worth the cost of shipping internationally. Buy them instead from a domestic book dealer.

The Big Two auction houses are also both notorious for big shipping bills to clients and expensive third-party services. Swann has been more reasonable and still does its shipping in-house. In France, don’t even think about asking the auction house to ship for you. Not unless you want poor packing and broken items. For example, one dealer had his full-plate daguerreotype sent by mistake to another dealer in a Fed-X envelope without any protective packaging. He eventually got the pieces back from the other dealer. Instead, get the auction’s independent expert or a professional art shipper/handler to handle shipping and licensing for you after a detailed conversation on how exactly you want the item shipped. Expect the bill to be very steep, although the return of the VAT may help if your item was expensive at auction. I recently had six 16 x 20 matted photos packaged, licensed and shipped from Paris at a cost of over $1000. New York dealer Keith De Lillis recently got a quote from the auction house of 665 euros (about $900 at the time) for shipping a single 8 x 10-inch photograph that he had just bought from Sotheby's Paris from Paris to New York City.

If you are there, you can always pack and ship things that don’t require licensing yourself. Even in France and England they have Mail Box, Etc.’s. You may save a little this way, but shipping internationally is expensive, and you will lose the VAT refund, and you will not be able to do this if a piece needs licensing. Most Fed-Ex shipments of even a small size, say a single 16" x 20" matted photograph, have cost about $200 (and that is with a 15% discount with my Corporate Amex Gold card). Paperwork in clearing customs is expensive. And you will find that U.S. Customs adds on an "inspection" fee of .2%. If you do not want something crated, which adds dramatically to your cost of packing AND shipping, make sure you specify to your shipper how you want something packed.

Fortunately for Americans, most photography that is over 30 years old is not subject to customs duties, but is subject to a fee, which is typically .2% of the invoiced amount. On contemporary work, you may be paying the full customs duties as well, which is currently 20%. Other countries have different customs regulations. Be sure to check with your local customs office for details. Fed-Ex’s site also gives some decent advice for international shippers.

Charity Auctions

Another type of auction to buy at is the charity auction. The advantage here is that your purchases get to benefit a good cause. There are many good charity auctions. Just remember that the above rules on bidding still apply, although many charity auctions do not charge a buyer’s premium, which allows you to bid 10-25% more.

On-Line Auctions

Some of what was discussed above also applies to on-line auctions (check to see if there is a buyer’s premium, such as on eBay Live Bid and Live, but in addition I thought you might like to see what the US Government suggests and then my more practical advice.

The United States’ Federal Trade Commission advises consumers who buy items through Internet auctions to:

Identify the seller and check the seller's rating.

My advice: You should actually look over the feedback comments if they are available. Moreover, see if the vendor has any negatives posted and what exactly they were for. A couple of negatives for an active dealer (over a hundred feedbacks) are typical, but three or more negatives per hundred are not. For photography I would also suggest to see if the vendor is either a member of the Daguerreian Society or AIPAD. I have found a generally higher level of competence, honesty and willingness to take items back from members of these two groups, although membership in either group certainly does not guarantee honesty and competence.

Be sure to understand what they're bidding on, its relative value, and all terms and conditions of the sale, including the seller's return policies and who pays for shipping.

My advice: If you cannot see an item clearly, do not usually bid on it. Fellow dealer and Daguerreian Society member Michael Lehr and I once joked--with a strained sense of black humor--about how he and I had wasted thousands of dollars on top quality scanners that show every nick, scratch or slight bend in a daguerreotype, while many on-line vendors rely on $59 scanners and cheap digital cameras to hide the flaws of their images. Also beware of the overuse of Photoshop and other image editing software that clean up an image. It is one thing to try to replicate the way the image looks by using the tools; it's another to try to use them to deceive. I recently saw a dag that looked like more airbrush then actual image. Of course the same is true of printed catalogues. It is amazing to see heavy foxing on a print that looks pristine in the catalogue.

One common come-on is: "Fresh to the market. Just took this dag out of an attic in Maine (or substitute your own favorite state)." I've previously owned or handled a fair amount of the images that have had such "marketing" language attached to them. There are even more misleading claims on line, of course. I've seen many problems with misleading information about vintage, condition, type of image, attribution, and identification, but then I've seen all of this with the major auction houses too.

If the listing sounds "folksy" or naive, it often is the exact opposite. The dealer just wants you to think they don't know what they're doing.

This was a tintype that was being sold on eBay.  It even had an 1860s revenue stamp on the back.  But it was a fake.  The dealer selling it was honest and took it back, which is quite a rarity.
This was a tintype that was being sold on eBay. It even had an 1860s revenue stamp on the back. But it was a fake. The dealer selling it was honest and took it back, which is quite a rarity.

There have been too many counterfeit tintypes in particular on line. Be aware that there are fake cowboys, Indians, nudes, American Civil War scenes, Custer material, etc. Some are very well done. Most of us in the trade have been seeing these for some time. I remember a dealer showing me fake tins of Indians in 1984 that used original old plates. They were very good indeed. Look for half tone dots under high magnification (a Ferris wheel at the Columbian expo that came up on eBay was apparently such a copy, according to Mike Lehr), coatings that don't look "right" (color, peeling, surface), flatness of a copy (although there are many perfectly fine period copies), and publication of the image somewhere else. If the image seems familiar in a tintype, run, don't walk, away from this image. Also be aware that people have been mounting laser and jet ink printouts of important images on older cabinet and cdv cards. These are usually easy to spot–that is, IF you look for them.

Likewise, almost all of the identifications that I've seen in most on-line auctions have been erroneous, and most of the dealers knew it. One eBay vendor told me that if Christie's could call its dag a Lincoln, he could call his a Vice President. That after I had proved to him that his image couldn't possibly be the person he claimed it to be. The comment does remind us all that misidentifications also occur at other types of auctions as well.

Remember: It is always "Buyer Beware."

Certainly email your questions on these areas to on-line dealers--and auction houses--and pay attention to how they respond, or don't. I have gotten too many ambiguous responses and I feel the vendors were responding this way purposely to conceal problems.

Also pay for insurance on any item over $50. It's worth it.

Establish their top price and stick to it.

My advice: See the advice on this area above under Traditional Auctions. You may want to consider looking into some of the on-line services that offer automated "sniping", particularly if you bid a lot on eBay. Then you do not have to worry about overbidding or forgetting to go on-line at the right time. Just remember that when you are bidding on eBay’s Live Bid site or some other online auction sites, you will be paying a buyer’s premium over and above what your bid is. Make sure you factor it into your bid.

Evaluate their payment options. If possible, they should use a credit card because it offers the most protection if there's a problem. They can also use an escrow service that holds their money until the purchase arrives and is approved.

My advice: If a dealer offers a credit card facility, he or she is probably more likely to be above board and you will not need to use it to protect yourself, but it is not a bad idea. In my experience–for most dealers–an escrow service is unnecessary and very expensive. Very legitimate dealers hate to use these facilities. They're cumbersome and they tend to hold on to the dealer's money longer than they need to. And frankly, there are more problems on the buyers' side with fraud than the sellers' side. Know your dealers. That's the best policy. And do not deal with those vendors who will not offer you a reasonable return policy if the item is not the way it has been described. That doesn't mean, by the way, you should return an item just because you do not like it. Expect to pay postage/insurance both ways and auction fees on a return. In other words, be serious about your bidding and do not abuse a good return policy.

Some further advice: If you are a Non-US bidder check to make sure that the dealer ships offshore and takes foreign credit cards. Some of the more rinky-dink credit card facilities that are being used by eBay dealers don’t yet allow for foreign credit cards. Look how the dealer packs your purchase. If they do a lousy job, don’t bid on their items. And beware that putting in big "buy" bids on a snipe can result in you having to pay much too much for an item. Only bid the most you would want to pay for the item.

Photography Galleries and Dealers

Photography dealers and galleries are probably the best place for a collector to start his or her pursuit of a photography collection.

While exhibit shows, like this one at AIPAD Miami, are a wonderful place to see a lot of photographs and comparison shop in one place, it is not a particularly good venue to make the acquaintance of a particular photography dealer; however, if you go on a quieter day (not the opening or closing days), you might be able to spend a bit more time in discussion.
While exhibit shows, like this one at AIPAD Miami, are a wonderful place to see a lot of photographs and comparison shop in one place, it is not a particularly good venue to make the acquaintance of a particular photography dealer; however, if you go on a quieter day (not the opening or closing days), you might be able to spend a bit more time in discussion.

A major reason for using a photography dealer or a gallery to build a collection is that a professional photography dealer should be able to guide and educate a collector, which is not something generally available through an auction house. But don’t expect a dealer or gallery to spend a lot of time educating you during an opening night reception, a crowded weekend in the gallery or at a busy photography show. The best time to make a dealer’s acquaintance is during quieter times. Come during the week, not the weekend. Make an appointment. Be specific that you expect them to "teach" you more than they "sell" you. Avoid the hard sell "used car dealer" mentality: do not be afraid to walk out the door of a gallery (or private dealer) that intimidates you. There are plenty of good, honest and professional photography dealers out there. Don’t waste your time on the few that aren’t.

After you spend time viewing the photographs, spend a little time getting to know each other. Ask politely and conversationally for the dealer’s background and credentials. How long have they been in the field? What are their memberships? Are they an AIPAD member? A Daguerreian Society member (if you want to buy daguerreotypes)? An ADAA member (if you want to purchase contemporary pieces)? Which membership/s is/are pertinent to what you want to collect? Realize that many fine dealers do not choose to belong to an association for good reasons. Do not ever use membership in an association as your sole criteria.

More importantly, what have they done to contribute to the field of photography? How can they help you specifically? Do they seem to know the artists or medium they are selling or that you are interested in? Don’t make this an interrogation, but more a casual conversation. No one likes to be grilled, but everyone is flattered by attention.

Are you dealing with the owner or director, or an assistant? An assistant isn’t always a bad place to start. They are usually eager to please and are often overjoyed when someone asks their help. Sometimes they have better credentials than the owner. So, does the assistant have photography credentials, or just bad sales skills?

A good photography sales person will try to find out what you like, not just tell you what they have for sale. If you ask, they should show you various photo schools and types of images, so that you can get a feel for what you like. Use the dealer’s experience: pick their brains, but make sure what you buy is your own taste, otherwise you won’t be happy with it long-term. Also make sure the dealer actually has a brain to pick before you buy, and then, that they’ll share their knowledge with you. The quid pro quo is that you should really buy consistently from the dealer that helps educate you. It is not fair just to take the time of a dealer without somehow paying for it.

Another reason to use a photo dealer rather than just plunge into the auction market is that you can examine an image carefully at your leisure. The dealer should be able to guarantee authenticity and can often provide more research and context for the image. Ask them if they fully guarantee all work is exactly what they say it is when they sell it, and if they will put that guarantee in writing. With the right photo dealer, each image can become a good learning experience rather than "learning the hard way" at auction. On editioned prints make sure to ask the dealer exactly how many prints of all sizes and types have been made. By some state laws you are supposed to get this information, but not many dealers provide it.

They should also provide the approximate dates when a photograph was taken as well as the print date. While this may be difficult (sometimes impossible) to do with complete accuracy, AIPAD has just required its dealers to do so, so expect some "printed later" notations. Don’t be afraid to ask the dealer to black light an image, or to ask for return privileges if the print glows under black light inappropriately (prints made on paper that was manufactured prior to 1950 will not usually glow under black light illumination).

AIPAD has also just required its dealers to note any conservation work that they did themselves, so expect to see more brief notes on invoices now. But do not depend on this rule to help you. I have seen considerable conservation work on images from dealers who claim that they never do such work. Perhaps they did not do the work themselves, but the pieces that they offer have had conservation work done in the past. It is just that AIPAD does not require them to report other’s past work. Some dealers have told me that they do not consider cleaning a print to be conservation work. Without a definition of what conservation means, you may not get all the details you might expect under this guideline. These are a few of the flaws in this well-meaning rule.

Let me also be clear: this does not mean that most conservation is bad. Most basic conservation work is often necessary for 19th and some early 20th century pieces. A water surface cleaning, flattening, minor edge tear repair (especially on delicate salt prints), cleaning of the mount and minor retouch are all acceptable treatments that have little impact on the value of an image. But you should look for the effects of heavier repair work hiding major flaws. The price on this type of photograph should reflect its condition, although the problems may be hard to detect. If you suspect any problems, have a good conservator review the image.

You can often put down a deposit to hold a photograph and pay it off over time–something not available at auction. Credit card facilities are usually available from most full-time dealers. Dealers may also let you "swap up", trading in a past purchase for a more expensive piece when you pay the difference in price, but check with the dealer about their specific policy before purchasing. This may be harder to do in practice than in theory.

Buying important, rare items from a dealer can often make more economic sense than from auction. Occasionally you can buy a piece from a dealer that reflects the market before it goes up. Auctions tend to set markets; dealers tend to follow them. This is particularly true on rare or unique items. Auctions are rarely a place to get a bargain on the top end of the market. Dealers often wait and watch the auctions before raising their prices.

A dealer will often provide some free services (beside bad coffee with powdered creamer or mediocre wine at openings), such as letters updating estimated value on items that you purchased for insurance purposes, tips on hot new releases (if a contemporary gallery) at lower opening prices that may sell out (with steep price hikes possible along the way), quick informal estimates on items you may be considering buying, and maybe a bit of occasional research on an image for you. Ask and you may receive.

Most U.S. dealers do not have nexus except in the states that they are based in or exhibit in. They are more likely to be able to ship you your purchase sales tax free and legally at that (check your state’s use tax though).

Buying at photography shows is also a good place to see lots of dealers and get a good idea of some of their merchandise. Some caveats:

  • Understand that many dealers save their best material for shows and many actually do the opposite, preferring to sell to a select group of buyers privately.
  • Many dealers focus on one area or one artist at a show. Don’t necessary judge a dealer by what they bring to a single show.
  • Many dealers have a more extensive inventory but only choose to bring a more limited amount.

When you buy from a dealer remember to do your homework on prices, just you would at auction (see above). Remember that prices vary wildly between prints due to the quality of the print, when it was made, how it was made, the media (platinum versus silver, for instance), size of the print, and the dealer’s normal markup.

Also remember the adage of the butcher. A woman came into a butcher’s shop and asked him why the price on his chopped meat was so high when his competitor-down-the-street’s price was 25 cents a pound less. The butcher asked the woman why she had not bought the meat at the other butcher. "Oh," she replied, "he is out of the meat at the moment." "Well, " said the butcher in reply, "if I were out of meat, my prices would be 25 cents less per pound too." Just remember that prices shift rapidly in this field, and even the best dealers may not be on top of all these changes. Do not make comparisons on the basis of what someone would charge IF they had the item in stock. Only make comparisons based on actual comparable prints. When making comparisons to auction prices, realize that prices may have gone up since that auction, no matter how recent. You should also understand there may be a difference in print quality from source to source.

Do not forget to ask the dealer what else they might have to show you. Most dealers have most of their stock hidden away in drawers and boxes, and not just on the walls. When I was a collector that is how I found my best bargains. Even at shows, many dealers keep a box or two under the table for various reasons. Do not be afraid to ask to see if they have any other work with them.

Buying from Other Collectors

Buying from another collector can be fun and occasionally a good deal can be struck, but if you are inexperienced, the transaction can be a little like the blind leading the blind. You may find yourself buying something that the other person thought was important, rare and maybe even expensive, although it really was not.

The other problem may be in properly documenting your purchases. You are not likely to get an invoice, so you should either write specifics on your checks or write up a contemporaneous list with date, prices, person (with contact information) you purchased the images, etc. Most beginning collectors make the mistake of not documenting their early transactions. Keeping good records can prevent problems with tax authorities later. What may not be much money today could be thousands of dollars in the future. File your purchase information and checks by year and even by month if your purchases warrant it.

Trades are a bit more confusing from a tax point-of-view. If you are a collector, you can use the purchase price of the item that you are trading as the basis of the item that you get in the trade. In your records note the item that you are giving up in trade and what you originally paid for that item. Enter it and the original purchase date as the cost of the new item and its purchase date. If you are a photography dealer, you cannot do the same thing (unless you are trading for items out of your personal collection, rather than your inventory). The United States IRS has ruled that trades made by art or photography dealers must be handled as if they were actually sales with the fair market value of the item accepted in trade as the sales price. Because the IRS feels that the price put on the new item is a strong indicator of its fair market value, trades are generally not advisable for dealers.

Charity Print Programs

Another way to buy is to participate in charitable organization print purchasing programs. Many museums offer such a program to its upper level members. The Center for Photographic Art, Mother Jones and other similar organizations all have very established programs with good "name" photographers, but other organizations often use up-and-coming new photographers, so make your choices according to your own tastes.

You have two advantages with using these programs:

  1. You can often buy the print at a lower than normal price, but be aware that, at least initially, there is a bit of a stigma attached at resale for these prints.
  2. Your money goes to a worthy cause.

You do not get some of the other benefits of other sources, but then you should mix up your purchasing sources as appropriate in any case.

Antique or Book Dealers as Sources

In the past–before galleries and specialized photography dealers–most photography collectors could only find images at antique or bookstores. Many collectors still use these as their primary sources. Occasionally a good buy can be made at these stores.

Remember, the normal caveats still apply: review the work carefully, even more carefully, if possible, than at a photo dealer. You probably will not have the same guarantees that you will get from most reputable photography dealers or galleries, and you might not be buying from this person again.

Unlike in the past when bookstore owners might be the only repositories of knowledge in this area, most today have little experience with photography, but now have an inflated view of what a photograph is worth. They have heard some of the high prices brought at auction and think that their items are worth hundreds, thousands and more, even if these items bear little resemblance to the auction material. Most cannot distinguish good condition from poor, unknown photographer from sought-after photographer, tintype from daguerreotype, fake from real, etc.

Because you are buying at some "remote" location, do not assume that the price is a good one–usually it is not. Try to do the entire normal due diligence on price that we suggested above that you should do for an auction or for buying at a photo dealer.

Buying from Photographers

You might think that buying from a photographer directly is a good way to build a photography collection. If you are just looking for a few images to decorate with or want to just support the work of beginning photographers, you could indeed buy work directly from the many web sites that now offer photographers the opportunity to show their work.

But if you were looking to purchase most photographers with established reputations (and valuations), you would generally be disappointed in this approach. Most contracts with galleries preclude photographers from selling their work directly or at least at a discount from gallery prices. Without a gallery to support the work (and prices) of an artist, most photographers never get top name recognition. There are exceptions, and some may argue that the internet will change all of this, freeing the artist of the shackles of the gallery system, but do not believe it. It takes consistent marketing and strong selling efforts to keep photographers on top. Galleries have the experience and systems to do this. Most photographers simply do not. Having a web site in cyberspace does not build a reputation. It may, in fact, limit one because galleries are reluctant to take on photographers who offer to sell their own images directly, for obvious reasons.

Of course, vintage images are usually not available from photographers in any case.

Resource Information

Photographic Art Market
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Langhorne, PA 19047

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Novak has over 42 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Historical Photographic Society. He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.

Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.