Dating Autochromes

by Alex Novak


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While some autochrome boxes do have expiration dates faintly inscribed, such dating to plates inside the boxes is often highly suspect, as boxes are and were often reused/repurposed, etc.

To make matters worse, many boxes do not have visible expiration dates. Some of those boxes though may still be dated using the following fabrication numbers that may be easier to see on the box, remembering that these numbers may not date the contents of the box exactly. You will notice that the numbers are not a consistent string as the dates go up. Information and data on dating autochromes below is courtesy of Jean-Paul Gandolfo, Hans Rooseboom, curator of Photography at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, and Mark Jacobs. Gandolfo's book with Bertrand Lavédrine, "L’autochrome Lumière, secrets d’atelier et défis industriels", is considered by many to be far and away the best book on the industrial process which produced the autochrome.

According to Mark Jacobs, one other method that can be used to date boxes should the expiration date no longer be visible is to see how the name Lumiere appears on the top of the box. A "Societe Lumiere" nameplate will date it from before 1911. If the name appears as "Union Photographique Industrielle Lumiere & Jougla (U.P.I .)" then the box was manufactured after Lumiere & Jougla joined forces in 1911. Of course, there is no guarantee that exposed plates remained in the same box in which they were shipped.

The type of varnish used and other factors may also be used in dating autochromes, but such dating usually requires the use of an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer, which puts the cost quite high and usually out of reach of non-institutional collectors. A full description of these variations and how they were analyzed can be found in the chapter "Photography in Natural Colors: Steichen and the Autochrome Process" by Tinia Passafiume, and "Coatings on Autochrome Plates" by Bertrand Lavedrine, Clara von Waldthausen, and Lyzanne Gann in "Coatings on Photographs. Materials, Techniques, and Conservation", edited by Constance McCabe, 2005, AIC.

The list of numbers and corresponding visible dates on boxes reported by several of the people mentioned above are listed below:

181: August 1908

331: September 1909

350: October 1909

383: 15 January 1910

518: November 1910

604: July 1911

712: November 1911

713: October 1911

828: July 1912

833: July 1912

928: October 1912

957: December 1912

959: idem

1058: August 1913

1091: September 1913

1113: October 1913

1116: idem

1130: November 1913

1158: December 1913

1207: May 1914

1238: July 1914

1245: August 1914

1288: End of September 1914

1314.1 October 1914

1318-2: End of November 1914

1483: February 1918

1487-2: 2 May 1918

1540: February 1920

1575-1: November 1920

1579-2: February 1921

1618-1: October 1921

1668-2: End of September 1922

1607: October 192?

1661-2: ? 192?

1675-1: November 1922

1798: August 1923

1710: August 1923

1934: November 1923

1733: date unreadable

1744-2: April 1924

1775: September 1924

1786: End of November 1924

1800-2: April 1925

1718: September 1926?

2867: May 1926

1911: December 1926

1936: 1927

1947: November 1927

1949: November 1927

2961: June 1928

2007-2: August 1929

2043-2: August 1930

2050: 1936

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.